On 9th March I arrived home from working in South Sudan, and had a few days at home before leaving for Sierra Leone on 14th March, to continue the work we had begun with RUHF more than a year ago on identifying local idioms of distress. During that time we all went about life as normal, although rumblings about coronavirus were growing louder. However, having checked with our partners in Sierra Leone and with the British High Commission in Freetown that we were good to travel, I went to the theatre, caught up with friends, and spend the night before travelling at my parents’ house.
Late that night, as I was about to go to sleep, a WhatsApp message arrived from a member of the research team that I would be working within Sierra Leone, Amjata Bayoh. He had sent photos of an announcement from the Sierra Leone government, stating that as of Monday 16th March they would be quarantining all arrivals from countries with more than 50 cases of COVID-19. No problem, I thought, as I went to sleep, we’ll be in before Monday…
Amidst the early-morning dash to the airport, I didn’t think much more about it. But on the flight from Manchester to Paris, I did. And it dawned on me - once arrivals from Europe were quarantined, maybe flights would be cancelled. In which case, those who were in Sierra Leone wouldn’t be able to get out. Hmm. Not a scenario I was keen on.
I arrived in Paris and met up with my RUHF colleague, Kanyke, We discussed the situation and were unsure what we should do. It seems amazing, looking back on it, that we were undecided, but at that point it was still not clear how the situation would develop and how serious it was.
Things were to change very quickly over the next few hours and days. After a phone call with Alastair, the RUHF Director, and a rapid re-assessment of risks, it was agreed that we should return home – although that turned out to be easier said than done.
After a long saga of retrieving our bags from the plane, finding someone who could cancel our tickets for us, trying to get through to the travel agent on a day when it seemed everybody was calling the same emergency line, seeing queues of at least 200 people at the AirFrance desk trying to book tickets, and realising that all the flights back to the UK were either full or hugely overpriced, we were eventually booked onto flights for the following evening, and into a hotel for the night.
The hotel was good, dinner was good - things seemed to be back on track. This was until the morning of Sunday 15th March, when we woke up to find that France had gone into lockdown overnight. There was no food in the hotel, the reception desk and all public seating areas in the hotel were sealed off with tape, and there were officials stationed around the place to make sure that nobody broke the new rules. Once check-out time arrived, we had no alternative but to head to the airport to wait the 8 hours for our flights.
It was the same story in the airport. Police with guns were standing around the corridors between terminals. The seating areas of all the cafes were out of service, although takeaway food and drink was available. We couldn’t check our luggage in until two and a half hours before the flight, so found ourselves a corner of a public seating area and settled ourselves there for the duration. What to do?
I’d brought all my embroidery things with me, and this seemed to be exactly the right circumstances in which to use them. I’ve been inspired by the craftivist movement, namely the Craftivist Collective. Over the last few years I’ve used craftivism to engage people in conversations about human trafficking and to spread positive messages around my neighbourhood in Liverpool.
One thing I like about craftivism is that I can create the embroidered messages while I am working away from home – and as a psychosocial specialist working for RUHF a freelance basis, I’m often away from home.
Over the hours that we waited together, Kanykey and I chatted to each other and to friends and family on our phones, and I worked away at creating an embroidered banner with a message of hope and resilience. Embroidery is calming and mindful, not something you can do in any other way. You have to separate the strands of a piece of embroidery thread before you can start sewing – if you rush this you just end up with a big knot that can’t be untangled.
Somehow threading a needle becomes more difficult the more impatient I become; when I stay calm the thread finds its way through the eye of the needle. Embroidery, like other practical skills, uses a part of the brain which I often neglect, and takes just enough concentration for me to stay focused, whilst leaving space for me to be aware of other people and what’s going on around me. As the hours passed, the embroidered message grew, and by the time I was able to check in for my flight back to Manchester, it was finished.
The next day I felt rather disorientated. I had expected to be in Sierra Leone for a month, and here I was back at home and in self-isolation because of all the travelling I had done over the weekend. It was taking some adjusting to. But it was a quiet Monday and the sun was shining, so I took myself down to the park at the end of my road and found myself a tree to hang my message on.
This was just two weeks ago now – but it feels much, much longer. So much has happened over those days, and it turned out that we made the right decision not to continue to Sierra Leone. Flights in and out of the country stopped on 21st March, and today a state of emergency has been declared. Although there are no confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Sierra Leone at the time of writing, the situation must be a terrible reminder of the Ebola outbreak of not so long ago.
The health systems there will take a long time to recover from the devastation that Ebola brought, and they are not able to cope with another outbreak of a virus that can be deadly to the most vulnerable in society. The people in Sierra Leone are experts at putting into practice the message I embroidered at the airport in Paris, and we have to hope that their government has done enough to prevent the occurrence of yet another test of their resilience.
Rebecca Horn is Senior Research Fellow with the NIHR Global Health Research Unit on Health in Situations of Fragility at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. She is leading studies of presentation of psychosocial distress in Sierra Leone and contextually and culturally valid means of addressing these needs.