Here’s some film from our last day in Freetown, August of last year.
Rex drove us around Freetown that afternoon. You can see his blue-gloved hands on the wheel in the video.
He drove us all round the city in the choking traffic as we ran our errands in the rain. He would drop us at one end of a street and we would dash between the plastic awnings where people huddled out of the rain, in and out of the little shops, changing our Leones into pounds in a murky office down a dark alleyway. Rex would collect us at the other end of the street, ready with a big grin and another story about the history of the country and his small role in it.
It was a bittersweet day. We were excited to be going home to get married, nervous about the Ebola which by then was entering its deadliest phase, sad to be leaving a place that we had made home.
It makes sense, when you think about Rex, why there are still some people in Sierra Leone struggling to trust the healthcare that’s on offer to them.
They’ve simply never had a healthcare system that works.
We’d seen that for ourselves months earlier – when the kids in the hospitals couldn’t get the free drugs they were entitled to because the hospitals didn’t have them in stock – and not because the drugs weren’t available – but because as soon as the drugs arrived at the hospital they were sold to the private pharmacies that could then charge for the doses.
We don’t know how lucky we are.
The truth is, when we think about our own healthcare systems, so much of what we receive is taken on trust, pure and simple. We don’t spend much time worrying about what is actually in the medication they prescribe to us because we’ve grown up in societies where we take it for granted that doctors are serving our best interests. We simply believe that they will look after us. We’ve got every reason to! It makes sense for the doctors to do their best to help – their careers and livelihood depend on it and they accept a role where they are morally obliged to help. Add to that the fact that, even in countries with systems different from our own, doctors tend to draw a reasonable salary – and individual doctors are seldom directly dependent on payment from an individual patient to earn their salary.
We can hardly imagine how lucky we are that, should we fall sick, we can rely on receiving effective treatment. We take it completely for granted that our minor infections are treatable with antibiotics – so much so that we abuse them, forgetting what could happen if they were unavailable or ineffective. We are born fortunate.
Of course, after reading this blog for the last year and a bit you know by now, if you didn’t before, that Sierra Leone finds itself in a totally different set of circumstances.
Not so easy to believe that the person who says they will help you doesn’t have a hidden motive.
Sierra Leoneans are used to being lied to – and they don’t have the benefit of the internet – or often even a basic education – to check out the truth of what they’re being told. They only have the word on the street, and their own experience. And their experience of western-style health care is expensive, corrupt and ineffective. In fact it’s a wonder that Georgie, her team, and the hundreds of doctors and nurses travelling out there have had as much success as they have.
And then there’s Rex.
Rex was smart. He had a good job and a wife and kids to support. He was educated enough to understand the benefits of proper healthcare, worked for a western charity, trusted the people he worked with. He latched on to the risks of Ebola much earlier than most around him – took what precautions he could. Hence the blue gloves you see in the video.
He took us down to the quay to catch our boat that day we left Sierra Leone. Took our bags out of the car, waved us goodbye, bid us a safe journey and hoped he would see us soon.
Of course, we never got to go back as we had planned, Ebola put paid to that. And when Georgie did go back, working for IMC, she never got the chance to see Rex again.
Now she never will.
Rex didn’t die of Ebola. Nor of Malaria, or Typhoid or any one of a dozen scary sounding tropical illnesses that dog the country.
He had a toothache. And the tooth became infected. And maybe he couldn’t afford or obtain the medicine that could have helped him, or maybe the medication he was given was out of date or maybe, even, they gave him the wrong drugs. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that last week Rex died, from an illness that might have cost one of us a day or two off work.
I miss writing happy entries about Sierra Leone.