MONROVIA, Liberia — Security forces acting on the president’s orders used scrap wood and barbed wire to seal off 50,000 people inside their crowded slum Wednesday in an attempt to contain the Ebola outbreak, which has killed 1,350 people and counting.
Hundreds of slum residents clashed with the police and soldiers, furious that their West Point peninsula is being blamed and isolated by a government that has failed to quickly collect dead bodies from the streets of the capital.
The World Health Organization raised the total death toll to 1,350, and said deaths are mounting fastest in Liberia, which now accounts for at least 576. The U.N. health agency also warned that “countries are beginning to experience supply shortages, including fuel, food, and basic supplies.”
This comes after a number of airlines and shipping services have halted transport to population centres in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. And if the situation in these capitals is bad, it’s much worse inside West Point, a huge slum that occupies a narrow spit of land in Liberia’s capital of Monrovia.
Hundreds of residents of the seaside slum threw rocks and challenged the riot police and soldiers who installed the barricades Wednesday, but were soon suppressed. A coast guard boat patrolled sewage-strewn waters offshore, and the president imposed a nighttime curfew.
With many families divided by the barricades, people were particularly angry when the local government representative, who had not slept at home, returned to get her family out under an armed escort. Hundreds surrounded her house until security forces packed the family into a car and hustled them away, firing into the air to disperse the crowd.
Deputy Police Chief Abraham Kromah said later Wednesday that forces managed to restore order and were investigating to see if shots had been fired.
Fear and tension have been building in Monrovia for days, and West Point has been one of the flash points. West Point residents raided an Ebola screening centre over the weekend, accusing officials of bringing sick people from all over Monrovia into their neighbourhood.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ordered the barricades and the curfew.
“We have been unable to control the spread” of Ebola, Sirleaf said in an address to the nation Tuesday night. She blamed the rising case toll on denial, defiance of authorities and cultural burial practices, in which bodies are handled. But many feel the government has not done enough to protect them, leaving bodies in the streets for hours or even days.
West Point occupies a half-mile-long (kilometre-long) peninsula where the Mesurado River meets the Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the capital’s poorest and most densely populated neighbourhoods, with poor sanitation even in the best of times. Open defecation is a major problem. Mistrust of authorities is rampant, and many live without electricity or access to clean water.
Few roads go into the area and a major road runs along the base of the point, serving as a barrier between the neighbourhood and the rest of Monrovia. Ferries to the area have been halted, and the community is in “disarray” resident Richard Kieh told The Associated Press by phone.
“Prices of things have been doubled here,” Kieh said.
Sirleaf also ordered movie theatres, nightclubs and other gathering places shut, and cordoned off Dolo Town, 30 miles (50 kilometres) south of the capital.
While whole counties and districts in Sierra Leone and Liberia have been sealed off and internal travel restrictions have limited the movement of people in Guinea, the sealing off of West Point is the first time such restrictions have been attempted in a capital city in this outbreak.
The virus is spreading fastest in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but the U.N. health agency reported encouraging signs in Guinea that the outbreak is slowing, and there is hope that Nigeria has managed to contain the disease to about a dozen cases.
Nigeria’s health minister, Onyebuchi Chukwu, said Tuesday that a fifth person had died of Ebola, but all of Nigeria’s reported cases have been people who had direct contact with a Liberian-American man who was already infected when he arrived in the country on an airliner.