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Africa

Combatting Ebola at Sierra Leone's Freetown port

media Freetown port, 5 November 2014 Photo: Daniel Finnan

Freetown port, one of Sierra Leone’s vital facilities in the fight against the Ebola virus, remains in action as one of the mainstays of the economy. While there are concerns about the epidemic affecting the port’s day-to-day functioning, specifically over fears of vessels docking in Freetown transmitting the virus, a tour around the port reveals a different picture.

“People should not have any fear that the economy is going down,” says Abu Bakar Sesay, the Deputy Chief of Operations for Bolloré, the French company which runs the port’s logistics.

“We have normal vessel operations - vessels are coming, vessels are going - cargo is still coming as usual,” he adds.

Freetown port handled approximately 45,000 full containers last year. In comparison, Conakry port, Guinea transported 610,000 containers and Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire moved 180,000. Looking at west Africa as a whole, Freetown port is small, however its importance to Sierra Leone cannot be understated.

Besides transporting goods the port has become essential in the fight against the deadly Ebola virus. The World Food Programme uses the port to deliver much-needed supplies required to feed Sierra Leoneans under quarantine.

“Every vessel brings in a lot of cargo for them,” says Sesay. “We give our utmost assistance to them,” he adds.

Not only is the port important for WFP foodstuffs, but it was used recently by the RFA Argus, a British military medical ship brought to Sierra Leone as part of efforts to contain the outbreak of the virus.

In order to keep up normal operations, stringent measures have been put in place to prevent Ebola from affecting the port.

At the gangway of a big container ship, a port operative is armed with a thermometer. He says he has to check everyone who goes on board to determine whether they are suffering from fever, a telltale sign of Ebola.

The measures extend beyond just taking temperatures. Bolloré operations manager Sesay says they “comply with the instructions given to us to prevent the outbreak”. He outlines the use of chlorine buckets for hand washing and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) requirements for boarding vessels.

The risk to the shipping industry is overstated, according to Bolloré’s staff. There had been concerns about the shipping in the Ebola-affected countries helping the spread of the virus.

Earlier, at the beginning of the outbreak, the port in Dakar, Senegal had refused a vessel coming from Sierra Leone. These fears were allayed by Maersk, the shipping company responsible for 60 per cent of Freetown’s containers, altering what is called the ‘rotation’, the order in which ships call at port.

In addition to Bolloré, Sierra Leone’s Port Authority have also had to put in place precautions and there is another ‘Ebola checkpoint’ at the entrance to the Port Authority’s operations, separating Bolloré’s port concession.

“We have a ports clinic headed by a senior medical officer,” says Aladi Mohamed Abu Sesay, the Acting General Manager of the Sierra Leone Ports Authority. “Dr Jallow, he’s handling Ebola activities, Ebola issues, everything that has to do with Ebola,” he adds.

Some expatriate workers have been evacuated from Freetown port, but these are not attached to the port’s operations. Dangote Cement, a Nigerian company owned by billionaire Aliko Dangote, had evacuated Indians working on the construction of a cement facility at the port.

Bolloré stayed put though. Senior management at the port admit to a “little drop” in shipping traffic due to Ebola although say that it’s not “drastic” and could be attributed to normal seasonal variations in the industry and overall global economic conditions.

Abu Bakar Sesay, the logistics firm’s operations chief, is more upbeat. As far as he is concerned it’s “business as usual”.

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