There are 100 bags and boxes of hospital linens, 100 cases of protective suits, 80 cases of face masks and other items — in all, more than $140,000 worth of medical equipment locked inside a dented container at the port since Aug. 9.
Hundreds of people have died of Ebola in Sierra Leone since then, and health workers have endured grave shortages of lifesaving supplies, putting them at even greater risk in a country reeling from the virus.
“We are still just hoping (!!!) — which sounds like BEGGING — that this container should be cleared,” one government official wrote in a frantic email to his superiors, weeks after the container arrived.
In many ways, the delay reflects what some in the growing ranks of international officials pouring into this nation to fight Ebola describe as a chaotic, disorganized government response to the epidemic.
“It’s a mess,” said one foreign official working alongside the Sierra Leone government agency set up to deal with the crisis. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to maintain vital relations with the government, said that nobody appeared to be in charge at the agency, known as the “emergency operations center,” and that different factions made decisions independently.
“It’s the only body responsible,” the official said. “What is it doing?”
In the case of the shipping container, the desperately needed supplies seem to have been caught, at least in part, in a trap that is common the world over: politics, money and power.
The supplies were donated by individuals and institutions in the United States, according to Chernoh Alpha Bah, who organized the shipment. But Mr. Bah wears another hat, as well. He is an opposition politician from President Ernest Bai Koroma’s hometown, Makeni — a place that clearly showed the government’s inability to contain Ebola.
A recent surge of cases there quickly overwhelmed health workers, with protective gear so lacking that some nurses have worked around the deadly virus in their street clothes.
More than 80 health care workers in Sierra Leone have died in the outbreak, and even in the capital, Freetown, some burial crews wear protective gowns with gaping holes in them, a clear indication of the urgent need for more supplies.
The government official who pleaded for the shipment to come in said that the political tensions may have contributed to the delay, to prevent the opposition from trumpeting the donations.
Mr. Bah said he thought the equipment would be welcomed by the struggling authorities, and he said he expected the shipping fee of $6,500 would be a small detail for Sierra Leone. According to the official, the government has already received well over $40 million in cash from international donors to fight Ebola.
The shipping company, as a good-will gesture in a moment of crisis, had agreed to send the goods without being paid first, Mr. Bah said. But no more. Three other containers of similar value await shipment from the United States, he said, halted by the government’s long refusal to pay.
“We will appreciate if the payment is made quickly so that the medical supplies will be sent directly to the affected or targeted areas,” Mr. Bah wrote to the government on Aug. 16.
Instead, top government officials argued over the fee, said that the proper procedures had not been followed, and finally brushed aside the official urging that the supplies be let in, saying they wanted to hear nothing more about it.
“They are blaming us for shipping in without authorization,” Mr. Bah said. “It appears all they are interested in is cash donations. And all we have are supplies.”
At one point, a senior official close to the president, Sylvia Olayinka Blyden, acknowledged in an email that the items listed in Mr. Bah’s container were “very impressive.” But she said “future shipments” should follow procedure. That was on Sept. 1, and she has since left her post. The goods are still inside the container on the dock here.
“He should have contacted the ministry and discussed it with the ministry,” Yayah A. Conteh, an official at the health ministry, said of Mr. Bah, adding that the medical supplies would be cleared “very soon.”