As Ebola rages on, President Koroma Turns to God

In the last three months, there has been a significant increase in the Ebola response effort in funds, in logistics and in morale support. With first two, more holding and treatment centers, more laboratories have been built, more ambulances, burial and surveillance vehicles have been provided. More experts have come in and more personnel have been trained. Coordination among actors has improved and the 117 emergency telephone line now appears to be working.

Regarding morale support, the United States’ Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the British Foreign Secretary, Chinese representatives, The World Bank, African Development Bank, AU, EU and UN leaders have all flown in to Freetown to commiserate and share experiences with the government and people of Sierra Leone. President Koroma on his part has personally engaged in social mobilization, practically moving from place to place- talking to his people and community leaders on the “Dos and Don’ts” of Ebola. Yet more people continue to be infected and die of the virus.

Yesterday, 30th December 2014, the President turned to God. He had summoned representatives of the Inter Religious Council in Sierra Leone because, according to a State House release, “President Ernest Bai Koroma expressed the need to heighten the national response against Ebola by calling for a 7-day national fasting and prayer…”. We must crown all of our efforts with some amount of prayer and fasting especially as the country prepares for the New Year”… so that “we can have the kind of divine direction and grace that is required”.

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                                                   Photo credit: State House Communications Unit

Critics say this is resignation to fate but I think there is more to it. As the president engaged the inter faith groups, the National Ebola Response Center released the daily report showing 65 new infections for that day (30th December 2014) bringing the total for December to 1,513 cases.

Latest figures by country from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that Sierra Leone has recorded 9,203 cases (up 444 since 17 December), while Liberia has recorded 7,862 (up 43 since 14 December), Guinea, where the epidemic first broke out, has recorded only 2,630 cases (up 177 since 16 December). This is depressing by all measure! So President Koroma’s conviction that “some things can only be moved by prayer and fasting” should be understandable under the circumstances.

Sociologist Auguste Comte in his The Law of Three Stages propounded that the human mind goes through three stages of rationalization over a period of time. Comte stated that the first is the theological stage where people took a religious view of society. This means that, at this stage, the vast majority of the public understands and attributes everything to the supernatural and believes that the solution to every problem depends on the Supreme Being. The second is the metaphysical stage where people understand society as natural. At this stage, people try to reason and provide some logical explanation to happenings or issues. Comte's final stage is the scientific or positivist stage. He believed this to be the pinnacle of social development. In the scientific stage, Comte proffered that society would be governed by reliable knowledge and would be understood in light of the knowledge produced by science; happenings are explained based on empirical evidence. Many sociologists believe that these three stages do not occur exclusively of each other rather; they occur currently in every society.

Sierra Leone is clearly playing out all three of these stages at this critical moment. A deeper rendering of Comte’s philosophy may unravel why Sierra Leone continues to record this high numbers owing largely to the attachment to cultural believes. According to the Mundi Index, Sierra Leone is a very religious country; 60% Muslim, 10% Christian, and indigenous beliefs 30%. In addition to this religious preponderance, the literacy rate is also low: 43.3% (Literacy: definition: age 15 and over can read and write English, Mende, Temne, or Arabic). The level of education affects an individual’s capacity to rationalize and with a religious mix, in the face of scientific uncertainties regarding the Ebola virus, the tendency to cling on to the familiar cultural/traditional beliefs and practices would be high.

Comte’s argument further portends that the level of development of any society is dependent on the preponderance of any of these rationalizations. In Sierra Leone, it is not difficult to know that there is a religious preponderance in the public rationalization of issues. The inscriptions on public and private transport abound with evidence. “God go with you”, In God we trust” God’s time is the best” “I am a child of God’ “No weapon fashion against me shall prosper” I am covered with the blood of Jesus:”

Meet someone in the street and greet them; “How are you today? 8 in 10 responses would be “Thanks to God”, “Praise be to Allah”. And in everyday discussions you would hear such expressions as “I bind and cast that negative pronouncement”, “It is not my portion”, “father forbid, “Astagfula”. In the rural setting, the witches and wizards take the blame for every misfortune and sometimes even for progress.

On the 8th October, 2014, some phony message went round that some pastor or imam had instructed that people should wake up midnight, drink hot salt water and bathe in it to prevent them from catching the Ebola virus. It caught on like wild fire; everybody else was calling friends and family at that ungodly hour. I had to turn off my phone after the third call. People really believed the message and executed that bizarre instruction. At the end of “Operation Ose to Ose Talk”, one pastor announced that on the last day of the operation, people should come out and shout Jesussssss! I was alarmed at the roar in my community. So president Koroma’s apparent resignation to fate is only a reflection of the large society he governs. The vast majority of his people are too unenlightened to rationalize the calamity unfolding around them. And when after his efforts and the support from international partners the figures still look grim, the president certainly has only one more option - God!

But as I join in the prayers, I would also state that it is this high level of unenlightenment that is in the crux of Sierra Leone’s underdevelopment problem. Sierra Leone needs to invest in the education of its people and build its human resource capacity.  

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CF/No. 001056;
CBR/12 No. 002767 of 19.11.2014;
TIN - 1061168-0