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Freetown (AFP) — Millions of Sierra Leoneans emerged from their homes on Monday after a controversial nationwide lock-down during which scores of dead bodies and new cases of Ebola infections were uncovered.

The west African country had confined its six million people to their homes for 72 hours in a bid to stem a deadly outbreak which has claimed more than 2,600 lives there and in neighboring Liberia and Guinea this year.

“We have an overflow of bodies which we still need to bury but this has been an everyday occurrence since the Ebola outbreak… Now at least we have about 150 new cases,” Steven Gaojia, head of the country’s emergency operation center, said late Sunday.

The country’s chief medical officer earlier said up to 70 bodies had been uncovered, but these were in and around the capital, and results for the whole country are likely to push up the figures significantly.

Only essential workers such as health professionals were exempt from the shutdown, and some 30,000 volunteers who went door-to-door to hand out soap and give advice on halting the contagion.

– Begging for their lives –

Independent observers have voiced concerns over the quality of advice being given out, deeming the shutdown a “mixed success” and complaining about the poor training of the door-to-door education teams.

Meanwhile aid organizations and medical experts questioned the feasibility of reaching 1.5 million households in three days and argued that confining people to their homes could erode trust between the government and the people.

But Health Minister Abubakarr Fofanah told AFP volunteers had managed to reach around 80 percent of homes, deeming the action a success.

“We have learnt a lot from the campaign. Although this campaign has ended, there is a possibility we would have a similar one some other time,” he said.

“I cannot as of now give you statistics about the total corpses collected during the three-day period as we are now awaiting returns from other parts of the country and this will be made known as soon as the full report is compiled.”

Ebola fever can fell its victims within days, causing severe muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and — in many cases — unstoppable internal and external bleeding.

Fears of contagion have crippled the economies of affected nations, as wary workers stay home and cross border trade is disrupted.

The scale of the challenge is most evident in Liberia, where health workers at Ebola units have spoken of turning away people begging for their lives because they don’t have the beds or staff to treat them.

The country said on Sunday there would be a four-fold increase in hospital beds to 1,000 for patients in the capital Monrovia by the end of October.

– ‘In denial’ –

“Patients are being rejected… because there is no space. So the government is trying its best to finish the 1,000 beds so we can accommodate all the patients,” Information Minister Lewis Brown told AFP.

The move comes two weeks after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the country, worst-hit in the outbreak with more than 1,450 deaths, was about to see a huge spike in infections, with thousands of new cases imminent.

The WHO was due on Monday to publish the latest findings of its Ebola emergency committee charged with deciding on what other temporary measures should be taken to reduce the risk of the deadly virus spreading further.

A second deployment of U.S. troops arrived on Sunday at Liberia’s international airport, 55 kilometers (35 miles) east of Monrovia, as part of an eventual 3,000-strong mission to help tackle the outbreak.

The team will set up a headquarters for Major General Darryl Williams, who will oversee the U.S. mission to train local health workers and establish additional medical facilities, he said.

Liberian health officials said action to stop the spread of the disease was also being hampered by traditional communities still ignoring advice on staying away from highly infectious dead bodies.

“Some people are still in denial. Because of that they are not listening to the rules,” said Gabriel Gorbee Logan
, a health officer in Bomi County, northwest of Monrovia.

“And there is still ongoing burial rites — rituals that citizens are carrying out. They’re in the habit of bathing dead bodies because tradition demands it.”

In Nigeria, thousands of students were preparing to return to school on Monday after an enforced summer break because of Ebola, which has claimed eight lives there.

Catholic missionary Manuel Garcia Viejo, 69, the second Spanish national to be infected, was returned overnight in a military plane to Madrid from Sierra Leone, according to Spanish media.

In August, a 75-year-old Spanish priest was the first European to be repatriated after becoming infected.

AFP Photo/Zoom Dosso

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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