Sierra Leone has instituted travel restrictions as additional precautionary and extraordinary measures in preparedness to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. A statement issued on 16 March by the Office of the President prohibits all overseas travel for all government officials and urged the general public to “refrain, as far as possible, from overseas travel until further notice”. The directive further bans all public gatherings of more than 100 people.
An earlier announcement on 13 March issued by the Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS) that took effect on Monday 16 March 2020, discouraged individuals from countries with 200 or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 from traveling to Sierra Leone during this critical period. “However, if they have very crucial or essential functions in the country they may visit but will still be quarantined as required”, the advisory stated.
Prior to these new measures, the country has been implementing mandatory quarantine measures for passengers arriving from China. This has now been expanded to include all travelers coming into Sierra Leone from countries with local transmission of more than 50 COVID-19 cases.
Sierra Leone has several countries with diplomatic missions, multinational businesses and international organizations working in the country whose foreign staff might be impacted by the new directives. However, foreign missions and organizations willing to quarantine their own personnel have been given the option to identify their own quarantine facilities which will be verified, approved and supervised by the MoHS to ensure compliance with the quarantine protocols as established by the government. Additionally, these institutions will be required to meet all costs associated with quarantining individuals in their facilities. All other persons will be quarantines at facilities managed by the Ministry of Health and Sanitation.
Sierra Leone has not reported any confirmed case of COVID-19 since the onset of the outbreak in China. However, heightened surveillance and other readiness measures have been instituted to prevent importation of cases into the country and to enhance capacity to promptly and effectively respond to any cases that may be confirmed.
Some of the critical steps taken include the:
- Activation of the Emergency Operation Centre to level two
- Establishment of an inter-ministerial committee to guide on policy issues in relation to COVID-19
- Identified Points of Entry with the highest risk with particular focus on the Freetown International Airport, and the major border crossing points with Guinea and Liberia
- In-country diagnostic capacity at three public health laboratory facilities with quality assurance linkages established with South Africa and the United States
- Heightened Risk Communications, trainings and prepositioning of supplies at strategic locations.
Periodic assessments of strategic capacities to determine readiness are underway. Political commitment has been high and demonstrated as seen by the visit of His Excellency Julius Maada Bio, President of Sierra Leone to two of the country’s major Points of Entry (border crossing points) including the Freetown International Airport to assess for himself the readiness measures in place in those places.
“With hindsight from the Ebola outbreak in this country, the government has been very proactive in instituting critical measures that should help timely detection of cases when they happen. The leadership by the government in coordinating partners is also helping to identify critical gaps and address challenges as the events unfold,” says Evans Liyosi, WHO Country Representative in Sierra Leone.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is leading the United Nations response with strong partnership and collaboration from UNICEF and WFP, alongside technical and financial assistance of the US-CDC, DFID, USAID, the World Bank, China-CDC, diplomatic missions, among several other partners to support the government to better position the country in readiness to respona to a potential outbreak.
Community level activities are being implemented including orientation of local partners and community influencers to enhance their roles in community sensitization as the country’s immediate neighbors, Guinea and Liberia have recorded their first confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Strict enforcement of and adherence to these additional extraordinary measures will be a critical factor in preventing importation and prompt interruption of any cases that might occur in Sierra Leone.