DAVID MOONEY: Ebola In Sierra Leone And How the Manchester City Supporters Club Are Dealing With It

Turn on the news and, pretty much every day, there’s a report into what’s happening in West Africa. At the time of writing, more than 15,000 people have been infected with the ebola virus and around one in three of those has died. There is no cure, with the only treatment being to keep patients well hydrated and comfortable, while the infection runs its course – effectively hoping the body wins the fight.

So far almost 5,000 people haven’t.

When the virus infects the body, it sets about copying itself quickly. Its first port of attack is the immune system, blocking the signals to cells that tell them to produce antibodies, meaning the body doesn’t recognise there’s a problem. Then it attacks the vital organs and the body eventually realises there’s an issue. The immune system overcompensates, making blood vessels more permeable to allow antibodies through. But this instead has the effect of causing massive internal and external bleeding.

There is little doctors and nurses can do but give patients fluids. In West Africa, with a lack of facilities, controlling ebola is extremely difficult. It’s highly contagious, but it’s not airborne. Instead, it’s spread by contact with the bodily fluids of those infected. A lack of hygienic practices means it’s a place where the virus thrives. How can those treating the sick prevent themselves from becoming ill in makeshift hospitals?

The first case to be reported occurred in Guinea in December 2013. At the time, it barely made a single news report; nobody knew it would spark the biggest ever outbreak of the virus. It quickly spread to neighbouring countries – as victims were reported in Liberia, Senegal and Nigeria. One of the places that suffered most – and is still suffering most – is Sierra Leone.

In 2003, a City fan from the Reddish Blues branch of the Official Supporters Club was in the country. A retired policeman, Tony Griffiths had moved in order to offer training to the Sierra Leonean officers – and while he was there, a man selling watches approached him. Armani Sheku Kamara was wearing a United shirt and, of course, it was always going to come up in conversation between the two.

And Tony bought a watch.

Armani promised to convert to a Blue if Tony brought a City shirt back from his next trip home. He did exactly that – but Armani had beaten him to it, setting up the country’s first supporters club himself. It went further; a football team – Man City Sierra Leone – was founded and they bought a team bus through fundraising, to help the players get to and from matches. It, however, went much further than that. The club needed to be self-sufficient and, as a way of generating revenue, they used the bus through the week for the public in Freetown.

There were already challenges in a country that was one of the poorest in the world and that was recovering from civil war. But ebola has hit them hard. For a start, football has been suspended to try and limit the spread of the virus. From a humanitarian and a health perspective, this makes perfect sense, but it has the unintended and horrible consequence that the players lose out. When they don’t play, they don’t get paid and – quite often – they’re the sole breadwinners of their family.

And that’s not an issue affecting only the footballers. When somebody contracts the virus, they and their family are isolated for 21 days. In a country stricken with poverty, that’s almost a month without income, and with a death rate of around one in three that means about a third of families will lose a salary.

The team is also losing money on the bus. It recently cost around £2,000 to fix after a crash, which was paid out of money that Armani had collected. When it was finally back on the road and in a position to generate an income again, it didn’t.

The general public aren’t using the service out of fear and it’s entirely understandable; they don’t want to get on a crowded bus and risk coming into contact with somebody who has ebola. Earlier this year, the country’s capital was also put into lockdown – with people told to stay at home in an attempt to get a stranglehold on the virus.

“People are frightened,” Tony says, speaking to Sam Roscoe for the Blue Moon Podcast. “Armani has just told me there’s an outbreak to the east of where he lives and an outbreak to the west. His mother was working to the north of the capital and there was an outbreak there, so he brought her home and took her out of work.”

Two members of the country’s supporters club branches – of which there are now 27 – have been infected and died from the virus. Doctor Mohamed Koroma was the head of the Kenama branch and working with victims, before contracting ebola himself. The Man City Sierra Leone team doctor, Alie Turay – a qualified nurse – was doing the same in a local hospital when he fell ill.

Tony explains that the New York branch of the Manchester City supporters club made a donation to Alie’s family to ensure they had an income for the next year, enabling his kids to eat and to go to school.

“Armani is worried about how many people he will lose from the supporters club,” Tony says. “From what I see on the news, there’s no sign of this disease slowing down until at least after Christmas. He’s frightened, they’re frightened, and people can’t get on with their everyday lives.”

I spoke to Tony again on Tuesday, where he confirmed that Armani and his family are currently safe and well. He told me that people are still very worried, but they’re encouraged that more people are surviving the virus than are dying and the community is eternally grateful to all of the aid the country is receiving, from the British public to the military’s involvement.

The message from Reddish Blues – and all those, City fans or not, providing aid to Sierra Leone – is that every little helps. The branch has a shipment of antibacterial hand gel sanitizers, along with clothes, shoes and glasses, currently heading to the country.

In fact, the secretary of the Reddish Blues, Howard Burr, had some welcome news on that front too. He works for BT, who have recently discovered around 2,000 bird flu kits containing sterile face masks, which they have agreed to send to Sierra Leone. They agreed to put the batch of hand gels and supplies in the same container free of charge.

That’s due to arrive in Freetown on 1 December, where Armani will meet it at the docks.

“It’s not a lot,” Tony says. “But you have to remember that people over there often don’t have access to running water, so whilst antibacterial hand gel might not be the answer to all the problems, it means you can give them some level of protection.

“People who contract the disease out there have very little access to adequate treatment that we’d find in the USA or in Europe,” he continues. “And they’re really frightened about what’s going to happen to them. They really are.

“Anybody who’s been to Africa will know, it’s two steps forward and one step back. The ebola crisis has taken us ten steps back.”

Written by David Mooney

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