How Ebola Stole Christmas

“Tomorrow is Christmas! It’s practically here!”
Then he growled, with his Grinch fingers nervously drumming,
“I MUST find some way to stop Christmas from coming!”
For Tomorrow, he knew, all the Who girls and boys,
Would wake bright and early. They’d rush for their toys!
And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the Noise!
Noise! Noise! Noise!
That’s one thing he hated! The NOISE!
NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!
Then the Whos, young and old, would sit down to a feast.
And they’d feast! And they’d feast! And they’d FEAST!
FEAST! FEAST! FEAST!
They would feast on Who-pudding, and rare Who-roast beast.
Which was something the Grinch couldn’t stand in the least!
And THEN They’d do something He liked least of all!
Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Would stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing.
They’d stand hand-in-hand. And the Whos would start singing!
They’d sing! And they’d sing! And they’d SING!
SING! SING! SING!
And the more the Grinch thought of this Who Christmassing,
The more the Grinch thought, “I must stop this whole thing!”

Last night was the first night of Hannukah. Truthfully, I had no idea. For an East Coast resident, it’s hard to experience the excitement of the holiday season in a sweaty, tropical climate. December in my home-town calls up engrained visions of sugar plum faeries, stockings lining the mantle above a roaring fire, and blankets of white snow shrouding the town in stillness.  Yet here I find myself surrounded by beaches, palm trees, and the refreshing breeze of the Harmattan.

Yesterday, I went into central Freetown on business. Babker, an IRC driver, and I began to talk about the current situation as we waited, stuck in rush hour traffic. We were hounded on either side of the vehicle by young men and women selling various goods – boxes of cereal, floor mats, ceiling dusters, chocolate cookies. I wonder just how many dusters are sold every day; it surely cannot be that many. I imagine it is a hard line of business and contemplate purchasing one.

Babker draws me back in.

He tells me that Christmas here is the most beautiful celebration in all of West Africa, assuring me that his nationality as a Sierra Leonean in no way biases his opinion. In the weeks leading up to the 25th, festivals fill the streets and lights and communal celebrations can be seen and heard from afar.

We look out the window of the vehicle. Traffic remains at a standstill and a crowd of merchants has gathered, still waving those dusters attractively towards me. As Babker and I scan the city, we see no evidence of Christmas. The traditional signs wishing people a joyous and prosperous new year are replaced with signs warning us of the dangers of Ebola.

Do not touch the sick. Do not wash bodies. Wash your hands. Avoid body contact.

Christmas is cancelled this year. Ebola has stolen Christmas from a people who have already had so much stolen from them. Despite many months of dedicated work, quarantines, community sensitizations, and behavior change campaigns, Ebola is still strongly present in Sierra Leone.

The government has announced the beginning of “Operation Western Area Surge” to encourage people to come forward if they have a fever or other symptoms of Ebola and to call the national hotline, #117, for help at an early stage. This operation also includes restrictions which are now in place for the holiday season to support the on-going efforts and coordination between government and international partners. These restrictions began today, December 17th 2014, and will last two weeks initially:

  • Travel and movements between Districts will be restricted during the Christmas period.
  • Christians attending church ceremonies on Christmas day will be allowed to do so, but are requested to return home immediately after church services to celebrate Christmas with their families
  • All New Year’s Eve festivities, including Church Services and New Year’s Day outings are prohibited. Any church wishing to hold a New Year’s Eve Church service should ensure the service ends before 5pm on Wednesday 31 December or through radio or television broadcast.
  • All public gatherings are prohibited, this includes all public activities around restaurants, nightclubs and the beach areas in the Western Area
  • Traders and market women are only allowed to trade from 6AM to 6PM Mondays to Fridays and from 6AM to 12PM on Saturdays. Trading on Sunday is suspended until further notice.
  • All citizens are requested to abide by these measures as violators will be subjected to the penalties stipulated by the laws of the country under the State of Public Health Emergency

Christmas 2014 in Sierra Leone will undoubtedly be unlike any other in the past. But though the public festivities have been banned and people struggle to get by as the outbreak clouds the country’s agenda, the joy of Christmas cannot be fully squashed.  People will celebrate with family members and close friends; prayers will be sent to God for the health and safety of loved ones; visions of a new year that sees Ebola left in the past and the prosperity of the nation to return will bring hope in a time of many unknowns.

Life goes on in Sierra Leone, because it must.

“They’re finding out now that no Christmas is coming!”
“They’re just waking up! I know just what they’ll do!”
“Their mouths will hang open a minute or two,
Then the Whos down in Whoville will all cry BooHoo!”
“That’s a noise,” grinned the Grinch, “That I simply MUST hear!”
So he paused. And the Grinch put his hand to his ear.
And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.
It started in low. Then it started to grow.
But the sound wasn’t sad! Why, this sound sounded merry!
It couldn’t be so! But it WAS merry! VERY!
He stared down at Whoville! The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!
Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same”

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