Outside Connaught Hospital, the woman with the glassy eyes and raging fever had been waiting all day, hoping that a doctor might be able to answer her questions: Did she have Ebola? Could someone treat her?
But five months and 24 days since the first case of the disease was confirmed in Sierra Leone, there was no bed available for Aminata Dowhertoi. She sat with other would-be patients in a plastic tent, where people often died waiting for treatment.
“There’s still no space,” said her husband, Salifa Konu Conteh. “After so much time, still no space.”
It’s a scene that recalled the earliest days of the outbreak — before hundreds of millions of dollars were committed to the fight against Ebola, before volunteers arrived from around the world, before the number of cases in neighboring Liberia began to decline.
But while resources were committed and progress occurred in some parts of West Africa, the disease crept toward Sierra Leone’s largest city. New hospitals didn’t open on time. Makeshift holding centers filled up.
“We take as many people as we can. The rest we have to send back to their communities, where they continue infecting their neighbors. What else can we do?” said Yusuf Koroma, the coordinator of Freetown’s Macaulay Street holding unit.
On Tuesday, 40 people in Freetown and the surrounding area called the government’s emergency response number asking for transport to treatment centers. Eleven were left at home because there was no space.
Holding units, like Macaulay, were intended as a stopgap measure — a place for patients to be tested and isolated until room became available in a treatment center. But the holding units quickly filled up. And many of the admitted patients never make it to treatment centers. In his blue logbook, Koroma has noted that more than a quarter of the people admitted to Macaulay died before receiving proper treatment.