“The world is shutting down. Places that were once teeming with the hustle and bustle of daily life have become ghost-towns with massive restrictions put on our lives – from lockdowns and school closures to travel restrictions and bans on mass gatherings. It is an unparalleled global response to a disease. But when will it end and when will we be able to get on with our lives?” Those were the chilling words of a BBC reporter yesterday, about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic facing the world.
Hundreds, if not a thousand of visitors to Sierra Leone – including Sierra Leoneans living and working abroad, are now stranded in the country, following the government’s decision to close its airspace to commercial flights with effect from today, Monday 23 March.
There are unconfirmed reports that several foreign embassies and consulates, as well as the British High Commission office in Freetown, have decided to scale back their personnel in the country.
It is not clear whether these foreign office staff have already left Sierra Leone or waiting to be airlifted on special flights out of the country today.
Speaking in a televised nationwide broadcast last week, president Bio warned the people of Sierra Leone that – “it is not a question of whether coronavirus will enter the country, but when”, as he announced tough measures aimed at prevention and spreading of the virus across the country.
Sierra Leone has still not recorded a single case of the virus, while neighbouring Liberia and Guinea both have confirmed cases.
But the president is now facing strong condemnation at home, for failing to seek parliament’s approval for a state of emergency declaration, which will then give the legal basis for many of the draconian measures he announced last week.
Without a state of emergency, critics say, the president will be acting like a military dictator with little or no respect for the country’s constitution. President Julius Maada Bio is a retired military Brigadier.
Today the British parliament will start debating a Coronavirus Bill which the Prime Minister – Boris Johnson is hoping will give the legal backing to the tough measures he has announced to curb the spread of the virus in the country.
With a majority in parliament, president Bio should have no difficulty in garnering support for a State of Emergency Legislation as the country now face a complete lockdown reminiscent of the 2014 Ebola pandemic.
There are reports that the Sierra Leone Ministry of Finance has transferred Two Billion Leones from the Emergency Preparedness Fund to the Ministry of Health to support the government’s enhanced Coronavirus preparedness plans.
Also, Freetown City Council says burial teams in all cemeteries will be trained on how to safely conduct burials. The council has restricted street and market trading to 12 hours a day.
It is reported that all 158 passengers arriving in Freetown on an Air France flight on Saturday, have been quarantined.
So far, there are 444 people held in quarantine, with a cumulatively total of 551 that have so far been quarantined; 107 are said to have been released affer completeing a 14-day close monioring by health officials .
A 24-hour extension granted to all incoming flights to Sierra Leone ended last night. All flights in and out of the country are now banned indefinitely.
“Subsequent to the press release published by the Ministry of Transport and Aviation on Thursday 19th March 2020 on the suspension of all commercial (scheduled) flights to and from the Freetown International Airport (FNA) as a possible safety and security measure in the prevention of Coronavirus, the Sierra Leone Civil Aviation Authority (SLCAA), in agreement with the Ministry of Transport and Aviation, has extended 24 hours to the period of suspension (Saturday 20th March 2020 to Sunday 22nd March 2020).
“The extension came as a result of several engagements with the Board of Airline Representatives (BAR), the International Community, coupled with numerous concerns from Sierra Leoneans who are currently stranded in other countries not affected by the virus.
“Effective Sunday 22nd March 2020, all scheduled flights to and from the Freetown International Airport (FNA) are hereby suspended until further notice. The suspension will take into effect mid night of the said date.
“While the SLCAA notes the possible concerns this might raise in the fight to prevent Coronavirus, the Authority wishes to assure the general public of its full commitment in the fight against the virus. All screening measures will be applied and all the policies that have been instituted by the Government of Sierra Leone will be strictly adhered to. Safety and Security, our priority,” the statement signed by Moses Tiffa Baio, Director-General of SLCAA, reads.
But it is understood that the aviation minister has agreed to allow some incoming flights after last night’s deadline.
This is to enable some airlines to collect passengers who are now stranded in Sierra Leone, but on the agreement with the airlines concerned that they will not bring in passengers into the country.
Some Sierra Leoneans visiting the country, whose departures have now been cast into doubt, say they are seriously running out of cash and worried at the prospect of not getting a flight out of Sierra Leone this week. But the difficulty also for airlines, is that most Western countries have closed their borders and airports.
In another related development, Sierra Leone’s ministry of labour has issued a statement warning people spreading fake news calling on workers in the country to stay home because of the virus.