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After Sierra Leone Explosion, a Health System Is Strained

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — When a fuel tanker exploded in Sierra Leone last week, killing 98 at the scene, the many survivors included a motorcycle-taxi driver who, while stuck in traffic, was engulfed by the fire.

The driver, Yusuf Kamara, sustained burns to 80 percent of his body. But for a time, he could walk and talk — and worry about the $27 he’d lost in the fire, three days’ wages.

“This was not child’s money, not small money, and it all burned,” he said in an audio note, the last recording of his voice, before he perished.

Several days after the explosion in Freetown, the country’s capital and largest city, the tragedy has claimed more lives and put the country’s already precarious health care system to the test. The death toll has climbed from 98 to 144, as of Saturday, and more survivors were still being admitted to hospitals on Friday.

In a country without a single burn unit, and with vital medications unavailable or running low, doctors and nurses are trying to stave off infections in the patients who have survived this far.

Memunatu Kamara with a photo of her cousin, the motorcycle-taxi driver Yusuf Kamara, who was killed in the blast.Credit…Saidu Bah for The New York Times

It is a herculean task. Most of the patients still being admitted suffered burns over 25 percent of their bodies.At a hospital in Freetown known as 34 Military, the mortality rate has been around 60 percent. As patients die at another, Emergency Hospital, their beds are going to victims who are hurt less badly, and who could not initially be admitted for a lack of space.

While Covid-19 has not overwhelmed Sierra Leone, which has reported just 6,400 cases and 121 deaths during the entire pandemic, the country is no stranger to health crises. An Ebola epidemic that began in 2014 killed almost 4,000.

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