13 Nov 2014

Building a hospital in the jungle – in just six weeks?

We headed out through the undulating, seemingly endless jungle on the metalled road from Freetown to Port Loko. Around us, everything about this land screams potential – the sweeping beaches and surf of the capital itself.

Out past mile upon mile of estuary and mangroves, past jungle rivers the size of the Thames at Westminster gently boiling with rainy season spate to the distant Atlantic, virgin forests curtaining either bank.

Potential for visitors to enjoy this striking land – but not quite yet, not now.

Mustafa is listening again to Jonathan Beah’s song “Ebola”, as he drives us out from the capital, its chorus is:

“Dis na message

From na African young voices we say

Ebola Ebola

Oh na killer

Ebola Ebola

Yeah dis na killer.”

One of scores of popular Ebola anthems here. Yes, Ebola has provoked an outpouring of music. Pushing out the no-touch message. Education will break Ebola’s current spread here as surely as any other measure might do.

Other measures exist aplenty of course and in a building site emerging out of the bush near Port Loko, warrant officer Steve Williamson of the Royal Engineers outlines the plan: “pretty much six weeks start to finish, it’ll be a 100-bed Ebola hospital due to open on 5 December.”



He looks around with quiet satisfaction: “yeah, when you look at it gives you a real sense of achievement. Quite honestly I’ve never taken on anything of this size with these challenges.”

Sierra Leonean soldiers in wood and thatch sangars give over watch, more to prevent pilfering at night than anything else. Inside the compound block and mortar walls rise from concrete footings, diggers scrape and eat at the rich equatorial soil.

A rare old mix of army engineers, civilian contractors from Cardiff and locally hired workforce are pitching in against the clock here. “We are the team. We work for our brothers and sisters in Sierra Leone,” shouts Said Koroma.

“We are working to beat Ebola, for a new future,” he yells, clearly one of west Africa’s more motivated brickies. The site is impressive.

Many query why the response has been so slow to Ebola from Europe and you can certainly argue not enough was done in the early months. But a hospital from jungle in six weeks? Hard to question that time-frame. Other achievements are past, not future. Ninety minutes back up the road lies Kerry Town. When the British laboratory came onstream here recently, it halved at a stroke the national timeframe for obtaining an Ebola diagnosis from samples on 27 October.

One of three planned labs costing the UK taxpayer £20m. Its impact is already being felt. “It was pretty immediate,” says Chloe Eaton from the John Radcliffe Hospital Oxford University NHS Trust. “It really did change things as soon as we got started.”

In Freetown, the football stadium is shut. Contact sport is banned for obvious reasons.

Instead, British soldiers run Sierra Leone’s brave volunteer health workers through the life-or-death drills of donning and doffing personal protection suits to do their work.

“It was tough for my family but I have persuaded them now,” says one volunteer on day two of the three-day course.

“I am happy, I am fighting back,” beams another, keen to get stuck into the fight again.

You can’t but admire the enthusiasm in a land that recently lost a sixth doctor to the Ebola virus.

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