MONROVIA, Liberia — Campaigning is under way for Senate elections in Liberia, another sign that Ebola is loosening its deadly grip on the West African country even as it hits the capital of neighboring Sierra Leone with increasing force.
Senate candidate Robert Sirleaf, son of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, expressed delight at how many supporters turned out at a recent campaign rally.
"They told me that there would only be 50 people but I see four or five thousand people," he said. "That gives me spirit."
Police last week said gatherings were still banned, including on beaches where people tend to flock on a holiday this Saturday, but political rallies were exempt from the ban.
The Senate election was supposed to have been held on Oct. 16, but that was when hundreds of new Ebola cases were being reported each week. The vote was delayed for two months. The rate of infection nationally is now fewer than 100 cases weekly, and the green light remains on for the Dec. 16 vote. Polling places are supposed to provide buckets of chlorinated water for hand-washing and a clean pen for each voter to fill out his or her ballot.
Some Liberians are concerned that it might still be too soon for electioneering.
"Even if Liberia was declared free of Ebola today, there would still be no need to ... celebrate until Guinea and Sierra Leone are also declared free," said Jerry Filika, a 19-year-old, underscoring that the deadly disease can easily cross borders. There have been 15,351 reported Ebola cases in the current outbreak — by far the world's worst — with 5,459 reported deaths, the World Health Organization reported on Friday. Hardest hit have been Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Authorities have warned that cases could still surge again in Liberia, as they are in neighboring Sierra Leone, which on Tuesday reported 83 confirmed cases in just one day including 31 in the capital, Freetown.
Timothy Boama, a 22-year-old newspaper seller in Liberia's capital of Monrovia, said that while most people are abiding by a general ban on gatherings in public places, the election rallies send a mixed message.
"What are they saying to people going to nightclubs," he asked.
In Liberia's Montserrado County, home to the capital, Robert Sirleaf is running against soccer legend George Weah.
The New Democrat newspaper quoted Sirleaf in its Tuesday's edition as calling on citizens of Montserrado County "to get ready to rumble; the die is cast; a debate must take place to identify who is better able to move the county and the nation forward into the future."
Associated Press writers Wade Williams in Monrovia and Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone, contributed to this report.