Screening (and an eye screening)

Death is a fact of life, necessary for nature’s cycle to continue and for humankind to carry on evolving.

The first day of screening happened on Monday 7th of March and unfortunately it didn’t go to plan. Due to the overwhelming amount of people that needed care (as well as a series of unfortunate circumstances and events) pressure built up at the gate and when it burst open from the weight of the crowd several people were injured and taken to hospital. Sadly one man died. Screening was cancelled just after midday and all staff had left the premises by the end of lunch.

Mercy Ships released an official statement and their report can be found here, so the previous and following words and opinions are very much my own as a witness.

A small number of people were successfully screened before the aforementioned incident occurred. I took a great deal of photographs before and after it of the crowds that had gathered as well as photographs of the few that were seen in early morning. However management has decided that for the moment we cannot show anything. I wasn’t actually present when the gate burst so I never had any photographs of that and the crush. I can understand why any that were taken of this incident are not being shown. Sometimes pictures are necessary and sometimes they are not. Showing photos of the man that died is not necessary – however I do believe that showing photographs of the crowds, the clear need and desperation present, and the few patients that were admitted is necessary.

Despite the fact that we are expecting to do another screening very soon the fact that that day happened should not be ignored and not showing photographs indicates that there is something to hide. So I disagree with that decision. Photographs can lend a good deal of understanding and in my opinion that is rarely negative.

Mercy Ships has nothing to hide. They have a vast experience since the early nineties of dealing with large screening days in African countries. They could not have predicted that this particular crowd would get out of hand. I don’t want to dwell on this. A number of factors led to the gate bursting – one of which is that a number of boys in the crowd my age seemed to enjoy the distress. I spent a good deal of my first two hours in the crowd initially taking photographs, but then trying to persuade people to gradually shuffle back to relieve pressure at the front – the safety of of those at the front of the crowd was of course precedent on everyone’s minds. While the majority of people in the crowd shared my concern a few laughed at my attempts in way that shocked me. I thought at the time that perhaps they were laughing at the futility of my commands rather than at the fact they were deliberately trying to exacerbate the situation. Speaking to others after, many reckoned that there was an element of maliciousness however. I don’t know – I can’t say that for certain.

The crowd was due to be directed through the pool entrance (so that they could slowly filter through into the stadium for pre-screening). However instead of one line forming around the stadium as in previous screenings people had already formed several queues. I think that because no queue had priority people were slowly edging forward to get seen. They didn’t want people in the queue next to them getting seen before them, probably out of fear they may not be screened themselves. Over several hours from early morning queueing this lead to the huge pressure that built up at the gate. Unfortunately my photographs illustrate my point much better.

What happened happened. I just wish I could show you photographs to lend a better understanding. Perhaps in time Mercy Ships will allow them to be shown. Meanwhile spare a thought for the many Mercy Ships staff and Freetown citizens that witnessed a man’s death on a day where hope was supposed to be realised for a great many Sierra Leoneans.

After a week of reorganising a much smaller eye screening was organised the following Monday at the Kissy Eye Clinic. I have photographs of that. Life is starting to get busier again.

Above: People wanting to be seen after the cancelled screening crowd outside the gate. Everyone is reassured that there will be an announcement of a second screening.

Above: People queue outside the Kissy eye clinic.

Above: Woody pre-screens patients before they enter the clinic building for screening.

Above: Local police help resolve any potentially tricky situations.

Above and below: Bill Donovan screens a patient.

Above: A young patient has his eyes tested by a day volunteer.

Above and below: Potential patients wait patiently outside to be pre-screened. Everyone will be seen.