Sierra Leone eases Ebola restrictions

A file photo taken on November 12, 2014 show a health worker from Sierra Leone's Red Cross Society preparing to carry the corpse of an Ebola victim out of a house in Freetown. PHOTO | AFP 

Just hours after Sierra Leone's parliament voted Thursday to extend the state of emergency declared to halt the Ebola epidemic, President Ernest Bai Koroma has announced new measures to ease restrictions in parts of the country while tightening them in a few persistent hot spots.

He has declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew in two districts - Kambia and Port Loko – in the north of the country still recording new cases.

Kambia is on the border with Guinea, the origin of the epidemic where the disease is still active.

The announcement by the president follows a decision by parliament to extend for the second time the public health emergency regulations which were decreed last year in the face of the ravaging epidemic.

MPs voted to extend them for a further 90 days, following a heated debate.

The move came despite growing calls from civil society and religious leaders for a relaxation.

The epidemic has killed 6,546 Sierra Leoneans since it erupted early last year in Guinea and spread to neighbouring Liberia before reaching Sierra Leone.

Liberia was declared free of the Ebola virus in May by the World Health Organisation.

In Sierra Leone 11 out of 14 districts have gone for over 42 days without new cases. Kambia, Port Loko and Western Area, which includes Freetown, remain the hot spots, but most of the cases are said to be coming from the two northern districts.

Opposition MPs wanted the two isolated, instead of the whole country remaining restricted.

Trading hours extended

The disease first attacked Sierra Leone from the southern Kailahun and Kenema districts.

Opposition MP Umar Paran Tarawally argued that the emergency regulations should only be confined to the problematic districts in the north - Kambia and Port Loko – as was the case when Kailahun and Kenema were affected.

But MPs on the government side disagreed.

Now, the President has ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew only in the two districts, which he said will last for 21 days.

In the rest of the country, trading hours were increased to appease a section of the population that was growing impatient.

Markets and general trading hours, including for supermarkets, were extended to between 6am and 9pm, Mondays to Saturdays. And restaurants are now allowed to operate from t6am to 10pm on the same days.

Previously businesses closed at 6pm. The Sierra Leone Chamber of Business and Agriculture, the Inter-Religious Council and some civil society groups had mounted pressure on the government to ease the restrictions, citing its effect on small businesses.

When the epidemic was at its peak, the very popular okada (commercial motor bike transporters) were seen as a conduit that was spreading the Ebola virus since people used them to flout medical rules and transport sick people at night and through forests to avoid isolation.

They were therefore banned from running after 7pm.

They have now been allowed to operate from 6am to 9pm daily, in response to prevailing difficulties of transportation in the country.

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