Sierra Leone marked the 54th anniversary of its independence on Monday by setting out a four-point “post-Ebola plan” to put the devastated country on the road to recovery from the deadly epidemic.
Almost 4 000 deaths have been registered since the epidemic spread from Guinea a year ago, although health authorities admit the real toll could be significantly higher.
“Today, we cannot celebrate our independence anniversary as we used to, as the nation is in mourning,” President Ernest Bai Koroma said in a nationwide televised address to mark the anniversary.
“The Ebola outbreak has been very tragic for the nation and many of our compatriots have died. Ebola is a war against our very humanity and many of our doctors, nurses and health workers have fallen in the midst of the battle.”
Koroma said government strategy would focus on “health, education, social protection and economic recovery through private sector development” to drive the country’s rehabilitation.
He added that the government would set aside a national day of “thanksgiving” to honour the victims of the epidemic, which has claimed around 11 000 lives in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
The former British colony gained independence as a constitutional monarchy within the Commonwealth on April 27 1961, staging elections a month later which saw Sir Milton Margai become its first prime minister.
Independence Day, normally a public holiday marked by events throughout the country, began largely unmarked, with no official programme of festivities and its annual civic honours ceremony called off.
Freetown was bustling as usual but there were was no sign of celebration, with public gatherings still banned under emergency Ebola laws.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recorded 3 877 deaths in Sierra Leone, although the country has been making strides in beating the epidemic, reporting just a handful of new cases a week since earlier this year.
More than 10 000 volunteers have been going door-to-door over the last four days providing vaccinations and other preventative medication to 1.5 million under-fives for measles and other illnesses.
The teams have been screening for malnutrition, providing vitamin A and deworming tablets and carrying out HIV tests on pregnant women and their partners.
“Such basic cost-effective interventions save thousands of lives at the best of times,” said Health Minister Abu Bakarr Fofanah.
“But with the Ebola outbreak, fewer mothers have been taking their children to health facilities to get free treatment.”
Dennis Marke, of the government’s Expanded Programme on Immunisation said an estimated 864 children nationwide were thought to have measles, all but few dozen aged under five.
Sierra Leone has among the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world, according to the WHO, but regular vaccination programmes and other healthcare ground to a halt at the height of the crisis.