Responding to worst Ebola outbreak in history

In Sierra Leone, Phileas Jusu receives an  Ebola text message from Bishop John K. Yambasu using mobile technology. The message addresses both health and spiritual needs. (The entire message reads as follows: "This message is from United Methodist Communications on behalf of Bishop John K. Yambasu. Please save this number as UMC Alerts to identify future messages. As we struggle with Ebola, I pray that faith – not fear – will be our response. This is not the time for blame or denial. It is a time to respond in love.") Photo courtesy of Phileas Jusu

In Sierra Leone, Phileas Jusu receives an Ebola text message on behalf of Bishop John K. Yambasu using mobile technology. The message, sent by United Methodist Communications, addresses both health and spiritual needs. Photo courtesy of Phileas Jusu.

The cross-border Ebola epidemic continues to spread and claim lives. The World Health Organization said this morning that the death toll could reach 20,000, and the virus is reported to have surfaced outside Nigeria’s capital city.

A doctor in Port Harcourt, the center of international oil shipping from Nigeria, died of the virus. This means the virus was not contained in Lagos, the capital, as had been thought. It also raises concerns about containment in a region with international workers in the oil industry.

Another strain of the virus, unconnected to the West Africa outbreak, has surfaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nigeria has closed its schools until October, and countries neighboring the affected nations have been advised to step up surveillance. Air France has joined the international carriers that have temporarily stopped service to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, complicating the challenge of getting supplies and health workers into the region.

In addition to the challenge of getting disinfectants, cleaning supplies, gloves, masks and related medical tools into the region, the mistrust of public health services and government announcements continues to contribute to the misinformation and disbelief that only exacerbates the spread of the virus.

United Methodist Communications is sending two text messages a day to networks of local contacts in Sierra Leone and Liberia with content approved by health officials. And the organization is inviting bishops and church leaders in other African nations to join in this information effort as they deem it necessary.

The messages can be read on conventional mobile phones, which the majority of Africans use. They are cost-free for the recipient, so they don’t add a financial burden to end-users. The messages are sent under the approval and sponsorship of bishops in the affected countries in the belief that local trusted leaders are more likely to be heard.

In addition to text messages, UMCom is exploring an audio message system to provide information to people who cannot read. It’s clear that communication serves a fundamental need in this crisis, and it’s essential to employ as many communication tools and strategies as possible to help get the contagion under control.


 

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Post-war trauma, mistrust, fuel Ebola crisis

A posse of young boys armed with slingshots blockades a road to prevent a Red Cross vehicle from bringing medical supplies into a village wracked by Ebola. In another area, residents throw stones at an arriving health team. And in a another, villagers flee when a health worker in a white lab coat makes calls in the neighborhood.

Christian Zigbuo (right) works to distribute printed information to educate people in Liberia  about the Ebola virus.  Photo courtesy of Christian Zigbuo.

Christian Zigbuo (right) works to distribute printed information to educate people in Liberia about the Ebola virus. Photo courtesy of Christian Zigbuo.

Why?

These reports remind me of conversations I have had with survivors of horrific conflict. Having worked around the world, I have seen and heard the fear and mistrust that people have of government and others in official capacities in places such as Kampuchea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and South Africa. In these places, the common historical theme is social conflict, and in some places outright war.

I recall a conversation I struck up with a young man sitting under a large umbrella by the roadside in Monrovia a few years ago. He was selling lottery tickets and gasoline in quart glass bottles. I learned he was a high school student when his education was interrupted by the civil war in Liberia. He wanted to study agronomy, but the post-war economy was making survival difficult and the dream of college unrealistic.

I asked him where he spent the war. His voice lowered and his expression changed.

“I moved about,” he said. “Sometimes to the bush, sometimes hiding in the city.”

Pointing to a now-empty swimming pool in an abandoned hotel across the street, he said, “See that pool? I was caught once by a gang of young guys who put a tire around me and threw me into that pool to drown. They were crazy.”

As if the war was not horrific enough, when peace came, gangs of young men armed with military weapons roved the city, robbing and intimidating the people until the U.N. established order and disarmed the former fighters. Without effective government, there was no security, and pronouncements by those who claimed leadership were unreliable. The nightmare of war does not end when the shooting stops.

Liberia and Sierra Leone are post-conflict societies. They are recovering, but strong civil institutions and governance are still evolving. Infrastructure such as sanitation, electricity, communication, health and education are weak. In both, a generation of children lost their childhood because they were born in a time of war. They didn’t attend school, and many were internal migrants or refugees in neighboring countries. And they’ve experienced trauma.

Health systems, never particularly strong, remain weak and fragile. For example, in the county most affected by Ebola in Liberia, according to a story in the New York Times, the health surveillance officer does not have a computer to track disease statistics. As a consequence, the health officer could not track the outbreak of Ebola in real time, and was relegated to an inadequate pen and paper record that was woefully behind the rapid spread of the virus.

Trust depends on the effectiveness of the government and its institutions to deliver adequate, impartial service to its citizens. Weak institutions cannot do this.

Hidden source of conflict

It’s true that people fear the Ebola virus and the toll it takes. But I think there is another, less obvious factor at work as well. It is the residual emotional state of people who are recovering from traumatic experiences in post-conflict societies. This trauma is often masked.

In daily survival it goes unnoticed, and in many places it does not figure into ongoing relationships. In others, of course, it remains a prickly source of conflict that has not been resolved. However, it’s been my anecdotal experience that in post-conflict societies, trauma is not far below the surface, and in times of crisis, when trust is on the line, it can rear its head.

Efforts to create reconciliation commissions have been tried with varying degrees of success. Sometimes they provide a platform for the abused to have a voice, sometimes they exacerbate unresolved divisions.

When I talk with people who have been through terrible experiences such as civil war, I often hear stories told in soft voices that surface pain and loss. Sometimes this pain is expressed with strong language that reveals unresolved feelings of injustice and indignity. Sometimes people are reticent to talk about their experiences at all. They fear retribution. Some don’t want to recall horrible memories. These unresolved conflicting emotions are carried silently. They reflect great personal loss. Spouses, children and whole families have been lost. Homes and sometimes entire communities have been wiped out.

Steps to rebuilding trust

Nurses listen intently during a panel discussion at The United Methodist Church's Mercy Hospital in Bo, Sierra Leone, to help prepare health care workers for dealing with the Ebola virus. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Nurses listen intently during a panel discussion at The United Methodist Church’s Mercy Hospital in Bo, Sierra Leone, to help prepare health care workers for dealing with Ebola. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

This emotional reservoir, along with weak government, social structures and economies, creates a stew of uncertainty, unmet needs and struggle. In the case of Ebola, I think it points to a need for clear, trusted voices to interpret the reality of the virus, and to encourage people to get medical care and avoid traditional healing. It’s also important for the church to provide messages of hope, comfort, encouragement and concern. In this circumstance, it’s a form of public witness in addition to a vital community service.

This alone cannot heal the broken trust, but it is a step toward healing. Other actions must be taken as well. Improving the health system, physical infrastructure, education and governance are critical. Economic development is necessary to improve work opportunities.

The church has another important gift to offer people in these societies. While large group gatherings are being discouraged during the contagion, under better conditions local congregations are communities of support where spiritual comfort and assurance are given, and personal growth and development occur. In faith communities, people are assured that life is sacred. Life is a gift of God, and God’s intent is not for us to suffer, kill or be killed. God’s intent is for us to flourish, and to find purpose and meaning. In The United Methodist Church, we speak of God’s graciousness. In post-conflict societies, the community of faith can be a means of grace.

What the Ebola crisis has revealed is that residual trauma and weak civil society infrastructure have long-term effects. Untended, these can threaten global well-being in unexpected ways. But this is not the end of the story. It is only the beginning.


 

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Ebola: Texting hope and busting myths

Ebola text message from Bishop Innis

The first Ebola text message from Bishop John Innis addresses both health and spiritual needs. Photo courtesy of Julu Swen, Liberia Annual Conference.

Ebola is real. It kills with little warning. Please adhere to health messages to safeguard your family. Let us be in prayer. God is with us. – Bishop John Innis

This first text message coming from Bishop John Innis to people in Liberia was not only history-making, but more importantly, it addressed a popular rumor that Ebola is not real but a ploy constructed by the government to get money into the country.

Ludicrous as this sounds, it was used as the pretext for gunmen to force patients from an Ebola isolation unit in a Monrovia suburb a few days ago.

The bishop’s message encourages people to follow the officially recommended precautions. It calls people to use their spiritual resources, and it says God is with us — that Ebola is not a punishment inflicted upon us by God.

Trusted voices must be raised to encourage people to take the threat of contagion seriously and seek medical attention when symptoms appear. And religious leaders can affirm our spiritual resources, as Bishop Innis has done.

Julu Swen in Monrovia, Liberia receving text message on Ebola from Bishop Innis

Communicator Julu Swen in Monrovia, Liberia, receives a text message on Ebola, written by Bishop John Innis. Photo courtesy of Julu Swen, Liberia Annual Conference.

When trusted leaders address rumors and misinformation, it’s more likely the rumors can be deflated. Texting is not the only way to do this, but it’s important in this crisis in particular. Mobile messages can reach a significant segment of the population. Sixty-nine percent of Liberians have a mobile phone, and texts can be received by conventional mobile phones, not just smartphones.

In addition, mobile messages can span broad distances. This is especially important. Text messages can reach people in affected areas that have been cordoned off by the military. They can remind people they are not forgotten.

Recognizing this, United Methodist Communications has been laying groundwork for the distribution of messages through mobile technology in areas where the need is great.

Now, for the historical part of this post. Because the communicator in Liberia was experiencing difficulty preparing and sending texts from the conference office, he requested United Methodist Communications’ assistance. A list of names provided by the conference was uploaded to a cloud-based database, UMCom staff got the message from Bishop Innis, and the text was sent on his behalf from Nashville to people in Liberia. The software used is open source and cost-free.

It was a first for us, and perhaps a first for a faith-based organization. It reveals how the world has shrunk, how information and communication technology contribute to our well-being and how valuable the connection of The United Methodist Church is as a strategic asset, especially in circumstances such as this.


 

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

The Malaria-Ebola Nexus

Digba Massaquoi waits with her 5-year-old son, Lahai, who is ill, at the health clinic in Benduma, outside Bo, Sierra Leone, in July 2014. Amid fears about Ebola, many people in West Africa are choosing not to go to health clinics or hospitals for treatment of other illnesses. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Digba Massaquoi waits with her 5-year-old son, Lahai, who is ill, at the health clinic in Benduma, outside Bo, Sierra Leone, in July 2014. Amid fears about Ebola, many people in West Africa are choosing not to go to health clinics or hospitals for treatment of illnesses. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

The World Health Organization has declared the Ebola outbreak an international health emergency, with 2,000 people infected so far and more than 1,000 deaths in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria. As these countries frantically try to contain Ebola, fearful people are not going to health clinics or hospitals for other illnesses. These illnesses add to the burden created by Ebola.

Malaria is one of the diseases either not being treated or being treated through self-medication, which creates its own  problems. The rainy season is under way, when more malaria cases occur. This compounds the problem. Improper use of malaria medications can result in resistance to the drugs. The medications require a patient to follow a course of treatment, and failure to do so can result in a more drug-resistant parasite in the future.

Researchers suspect a highly resistant parasite now affecting people in south Asia is a result of haphazard malaria drug usage during the Vietnam War.

Both diseases disproportionately affect the poor and ill-informed. Because Ebola and malaria have common early symptoms, such as fever, headache and vomiting, there may be confusion about the cause of illness among both those who are ill and health care providers.

Life-saving messages needed

While malaria is curable, Ebola is not. But there is real concern that the mortality rate from malaria may rise because patients will not seek treatment. Therefore, it is critical to get accurate, life-saving messages to people in these areas.

Communication and education are two of the four pillars The United Methodist Church and its health workers are using in the fight against malaria and Ebola. Neglect of any disease of poverty is costly in human lives and productivity, which means costs to national economies, added burdens for weak national health services, and great human suffering and death.

This panel from an info graphic illustrates malaria's toll. Graphic by Work the World.

This panel from an info graphic illustrates malaria’s toll – as well as lives saved by international efforts. Please click on the infographic link in the narrative to see the entire infographic Graphic by Work the World.

An infographic by Work The World of the UK illustrates both the severity of the toll malaria takes and also the hopeful potential to reduce its consequences. Behavior change communication is essential to reducing the humanitarian crisis of Ebola and the ongoing crisis of malaria.

Responding to the crisis

United Methodist Communications has provided $10,000 crisis communications grants to United Methodist annual (regional) conferences in Liberia and Sierra Leone to help get out health education messages through printed fliers, banners and radio. United Methodist Communications is also networking with other church agencies and international and interreligious organizations to coordinate communications efforts. It has also provided training and software to local communicators to enable them to send broadcast text messages to local people.

Similarly, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Indiana Annual Conference and the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection have provided cash assistance to affected regions for medical supplies and communications.

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund to provide support during situations such as this one so that funding will be readily available in the event of a crisis or disaster. Your help is needed to ensure that we are able to meet these needs as they occur. You can donate here.

This situation also underlines the ongoing need to continue the malaria work the people of The United Methodist Church have supported for the past seven years. The world has made great strides in reducing deaths from malaria, but we are still working toward the goal of elimination. To give to Imagine No Malaria, visit ImagineNoMalaria.org.

 

Poverty: The Common Vector

Health worker Kadie E. Koroma (right), part of a team with the United Methodist Church's Imagine No Malaria campaign, processes a voucher that will provide mosquito nets for the family of Gbassay Foday (seated at left) for her home in Baoma village, near Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Health worker Kadie E. Koroma (right), part of a team with the United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign, processes a voucher that will provide mosquito nets for the family of Gbassay Foday (seated at left) for her home in Baoma village, near Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

While the Ebola outbreak continues, media coverage, at least on television, seems to be waning. Print media continue to provide stories that enlarge understanding about how the crisis is being managed and its effects on people across the region. But this too will fade, and that’s part of an ongoing problem.

In this crisis, a familiar pattern of media coverage has emerged: Ebola has been presented as a mysterious viral disease with a horrific reputation. An outbreak is news. Blogger Michael Byrne, whose blog influenced the title of this post, attributes the mystery to the fact that the virus occurs in remote Africa and not in countries with facilities to provide the supportive care necessary for the body to rally its own protective measures. It’s there, not here, and it’s horrific. That’s sensational.

But once the sensational elements have been covered, unless a new angle appears, the media moves on. And the suffering continues out of sight.

Ebola, malaria, cholera and many other diseases that plague sub-Saharan Africa and other low-income regions are diseases of poverty. Whether the disease is borne by a virus or a parasite, the common vector is poverty.

Profits, neglect and the value of life

Diseases of poverty occur in places where life expectancy is already low and well-being already compromised by inadequate health care, sanitation and economic development. They are in locations where communication and education are weak. And these conditions are long-term, ongoing results of poverty.

In addition, more than one commentator has noted that research and development of drugs to prevent and treat Ebola lags because there is little profit in saving the lives of poor people in rural Africa. For example, Sierra Leone has three doctors per 100,00 population, Liberia one per 86,275, Guinea one per 10,000 and Nigeria one per 2,879 people. Pharmaceuticals and health care follow the money.

Beyond this neglect, corruption, poor governance and wars have kept these countries from building strong economies with an informed citizenry. And, as blogger Lindsay  Hilsum writes after decades of development schemes poverty persists.

This makes it more important to tell the story of people in these circumstances as well as address the conditions that persist and affect their quality of life. Otherwise, they will continue to be overlooked until another crisis strikes.

But in the 21st century, it may be even more critical to build the communication infrastructure that will enable people to gain access to information they need to improve their own lives and to communicate with each other and the outside world.

Combating information poverty

The Ebola crisis demonstrates that information poverty is a significant contributor to the spread of infectious diseases that can destroy whole communities. It points to the need to strengthen educational systems as well as national health systems. And it points to the necessity of major international organizations and partner governments to push for accountable governance and an end to corrupt practices.

At United Methodist Communications, we are providing skills training as we introduce technology after assessing needs with local partners. Technologies can be as complex  as servers and wifi systems or as simple as solar chargers for mobile phones. The technology must fit the day-to-day realities of climate, environment, power source and maintenance. But these are not insurmountable problems. The key is skills training and appropriate solutions for long-standing problems of info poverty.

Ebola is neither mysterious nor inevitable. With information, adequate facilities and procedures, it, along with the other diseases of poverty, can be contained if not eradicated.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Response to Ebola counters fear, disbelief and cultural insensitivity

Misinformation and lack of understanding are contributing to the spread of Ebola. Photo courtesy of United Methodist Council of Bishops

Misinformation and lack of understanding are contributing to the spread of Ebola. Photo courtesy of United Methodist Council of Bishops.

The Voinjama region near the border with Guinea is in the epicenter of the Ebola crisis in Liberia.

“This area is overwhelmed with fear, disbelief, and cultural insensitivity to the disease,” the Rev. Cecilia Burke Mapleh, superintendent of the Voinjama District of The United Methodist Church in Liberia, said recently. “At the moment, most of our preaching points stand abandoned if we do not act quickly with preventive messages to and for our members.”

The Ebola crisis has exposed not only the under-resourced health systems in the economically deprived countries of West Africa but also the lack of communications infrastructure essential to everyday survival, contributing to the negative effects of misinformation, superstition and denial.

As the crisis spirals in widening circles, misinformation, mistrust and disbelief not only spread the virus but also contribute to the risk of death from other untreated diseases, as people avoid medical clinics and health care providers.

In the struggle against this virus, information and communication are significant tools.

Getting ahead of the chain

Ironically, modern transportation has contributed to greater mobility among rural peoples in isolated regions, leading to the spread of communicable diseases. Without early detection, tracking and reporting, it’s difficult to identify and isolate those infected with Ebola. Diagnosing Ebola  has been haphazard and slow. Without more health workers, it’s nearly impossible to get ahead of the transmission chain.

But as modern transport contributes to the spread of the virus, so must modern communication be used to contain it. At United Methodist Communications, we are working with African episcopal leaders and their staffs to support communications work they’re already doing and to meet new challenges. We’ve made crisis communications grants to the Sierra Leone and Liberia annual conferences, and we’re in contact with episcopal leaders in Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria.

African religious leaders have engaged the crisis in several ways. They have prepared messages for radio, funded posters and billboard messages, conducted training for pastors to deliver messages to their congregations and distributed print materials, and they are exploring other ways to communicate accurate information. Bishops have released pastoral letters to assure people God is present with them in this crisis and not the cause of it. Bishops in Sierra Leone and Liberia are also participating in interreligious coalitions and working with national and international health organizations, in addition to local chiefs and other officials.

Saving lives with communications

We’re connecting church-related communicators on the ground with tools they can use for same-day, real-time communication. We’re introducing FrontlineSMS, an open source text-messaging service that allows a sender to broadcast text messages to a wide number of contacts at minimal cost. Sixty-nine percent of Liberians have cell phones, as do 67 percent of people in Sierra Leone and 38 percent in Guinea. We’re also supporting the creation of illustrated print and audio messages for those who are illiterate.

We’re networking with the major international organizations and connecting them with church communicators in the region to address both the myths and the truths of Ebola and will be used by health workers, on TV, DVD and internet video.

 We’re prepared to purchase printers and solar power supplies to print fliers for distribution by hand.

And we’re also supporting person-to-person communications. In Liberia, we’re helping with portable sound systems that local young people can carry as town criers to communicate relevant information.

We will also assess the needs of annual conference offices in the affected areas and develop plans to upgrade their communications capacity, including Internet connection.

Many health officials are saying this outbreak will take several months to get in check. We are working with producers for animated messages that can be used in the future on TV, the Internet and in local villages by health care workers with laptops to illustrate hygiene and prevention.

As important as these tools are, the crisis is revealing something even more important. Clear, accurate messages delivered by a trusted voice in a timely manner  to those who need information can save lives. Communication must be viewed for its strategic importance. It is not simply a support function; it is central to the mission of the church.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

Free flow of information is critical in crisis

An educational poster about the dangers of the Ebola virus hangs in the community center at the Jaiama Bongor Chiefdom, outside Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

An educational poster about the dangers of the Ebola virus hangs in the community center at the Jaiama Bongor Chiefdom, outside Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

“Fear has gripped the nation.” With those words, the Rev. George Wilson of Liberia summed up the state of his country and described the cost of not allowing information to flow freely in a time of crisis.

Rev. Wilson, who is coordinating The United Methodist Church’s response to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, said in a conference call that fear is preventing people from taking proper steps in dealing with the deadly virus.

His report was discouraging but motivating at the same time. Speaking with United Methodist Communications staff, he confirmed that hospitals are closing as workers voluntarily abandon their workplaces, and Liberians are self-medicating diseases such as malaria because they’re too afraid to go to hospitals.

An op-ed in the New York Times by journalist Wade C. L. Williams about his experience covering the Ebola crisis in Liberia for Front Page Africa is revealing, especially because the emergency has spiraled out of control.

Williams recounted his difficulty early on gaining access to important places and people to tell the story. He was blocked by government officials.

Considering his report and listening to Rev. Wilson, I recalled a telephone call on June 7 from a member of a United Methodist Communications team in Sierra Leone. The team, including a writer from United Methodist News Service, a unit of UMCom, had discovered that Ebola was present near the site of a net distribution conducted by Imagine No Malaria.

Even then, a physician on the ground warned an outbreak was imminent. The virus had already spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone. But the story had not yet been told. “Should we tell it?”  asked the UMCom staffer.

On the face of it, the answer seems clear. Of course we should tell the world.

But, as reporter Williams documents, such situations are rarely so simple. In Liberia, health ministry officials told reporters they should avoid travel to the affected area because they could spread the virus further. But the virus is not airborne and requires physical contact with the body or body fluids of an infected person, or ingesting bush food such as bats, monkeys or similar wild meat carrying the virus.

The government ministry sought to contain coverage as it released incomplete and misleading information. Rumors and misinformation can create panic. The results, as we now know, are fearsome and tragic.

Obstacles to communicating

It’s been my experience that telling stories in situations of conflict and tragedies such as this crisis can be far more complex and convoluted than what appears on the surface.

Government officials and local workers, for different reasons, may not want to reveal details of an incipient crisis. Despite their heroic efforts, health workers trying to contain this virus lack essential resources to isolate and treat affected patients. This can put them in a bad light. At ground level, workers who talk too much can lose their jobs. At a higher level, officials don’t want to look ineffectual to their supervisors. At the national level, leaders don’t want to appear unable to manage events like this.

A crisis like Ebola can harm business, affect tourism, influence investors and destabilize governments. Of course, officials consider the obvious human suffering and grief that results, but weighing all these factors takes time, and in emergencies time is critical.

In the early stages of an event like this, telling the story comes down to negotiating with, around and through obstacles to get the word out. This is true for local journalists as well as those from outside the country.

As expatriates connected with the church, we’re always aware that we are in a country as guests of the host government and our actions can affect relationships between the government and the church in multiple ways. The ability to assist with effective health care, humanitarian aid and other significant missional efforts depends on good working relationships.

Five realizations

In the case of Sierra Leone, health officials were eager to get the story to the world and we reported quickly. All Africa News Service released a story two days before United Methodist News Service and that helped our reporting.

On June 9, Kathy Gilbert of United Methodist News Service provided a strong first-hand account of the situation in Kenema, the epicenter of the crisis in Sierra Leone. United Methodist Bishop John K. Yambasu issued an urgent call for help on June 25, and we continued to report on the situation.

Many days later, other news services began to report. And days after that, it became clear a regional crisis had mushroomed into a global hazard. The World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency Aug. 8.

By then, however, the virus had spread and an epidemic was at hand.

From this, I hope we are coming to realize:

  1. in an interconnected world, the free flow of accurate information is essential to global well-being and even to survival of life itself;
  1. the infrastructure necessary to carry information to an informed public is an instrument for the public good, and not only for commercial and entertainment uses;
  1. that infrastructure must be built out so that everyone has access to information as a basic human right;
  1. the church should advocate for this infrastructure and help to create it;
  1. the church has a role to play to ensure that stories are told. In this case, it is the story of people in a remote, under-served and overlooked place facing a public health crisis that, unchecked, has become a global health emergency.

I’ll address that in my next post.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

 

Communication is Aid–and More

Ebola Prevention Banner

Workers hang an Ebola banner in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photos courtesy of Bishop John K. Yambasu.

Liberian Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee writes that her mother showed up at her office recently dressed head to toe in a winter coat and headdress in 82ᴼ temperatures. Her mother explained that she wanted extra protection against the Ebola virus.

Misinformation and misunderstanding along with superstition about Ebola abound. The virus is not airborne.  According to medical experts, it spreads through contact with the body fluids of an infected individual or the body of a deceased victim.

Lack of information is the fulcrum on which the spread of the virus tilts toward epidemic. With information about sanitation, abstinence from eating bush meat, and awareness that the disease results from a virus and not from evil spells or spirits, the Ebola outbreak can be contained. But this depends on timely, accurate and effective communication.

The role of communication is being recognized as critical to the well-being of people no matter where they live in the world, and no matter how well connected to the communication networks they are.

When Hurricane Yolanda struck the Leyte region of the Philippines a year ago, one of the first needs the Philippines government identified was for the restoration of the area’s damaged communication capacity.

Similarly, the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola in Sierra Leone, chaired by United Methodist Bishop John K. Yambasu, listed a comprehensive communications strategy as its first priority in a longer document spelling out response to the crisis.

Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola, Sierra Leone

United Methodists in Sierra Leone are working with the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola to share information.

We live in a connected world, and lack of accurate information, coupled with incomplete communications infrastructure, is a matter of life and death. Ebola, as the world now understands, is only a plane ride away, no matter where you live.

At United Methodist Communications, we live by the phrase, “a clear message saves lives.” But we also understand that the ability to communicate is equally important.

In the Philippines, we helped to restore Internet connectivity and provide aid agencies with tablets, software and training to enable them to identify where aid was needed, coordinate with each other, and communicate with and distribute aid to survivors.

In the Ebola crisis, we are supporting the efforts of those already at work disseminating accurate information in the countries affected. We are also consulting about infrastructure and distribution tools that can reach the most people with accurate information.

Today, the ability to communicate and the quality of information that is communicated are critical to well-being in local communities and to people in every other part of the world. Communication — and the ability to communicate effectively — is not a simple matter of technology, tools and software. It is a matter of strategic importance.

In many emergency situations, communication capacity precedes other forms of critical aid. In the Philippines, communication preceded material aid. Communication had to be restored to get food, medicine and construction supplies to those isolated and stranded in places cut off from others.

In the Ebola crisis, communication precedes prevention and treatment. The contagion cannot be contained without greater effort at sanitation, isolation of sick people, and proper handling and burial of the deceased. And this has to be communicated effectively and widely. In these circumstances, a clear message saves lives.

Over a lifetime of covering natural and human-caused disasters and writing stories about poverty and development, I’ve come to see that communication is more than the tools we use, more than the software that powers them, and more than the technology that drives the devices. It is a strategic asset that is important to our well-being.

In some circumstances, communication is aid, as a wonderful video produced by Infoasaid demonstrates.

And, if we believe (as I do), that it is God’s intent for all people to find meaning and purpose in life, and to flourish, then communication is actually doing theology. It is a way to fulfill our beliefs and follow our values.

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USAID and ZunZuneo

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 1.48.04 PMThe news that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) surreptitiously sponsored a text messaging service in Cuba created a storm of criticism last week when the service stopped and the secret sponsor was revealed. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said it was “dumb, dumb, dumb.”

It was also duplicitous and damaging, if not dangerous to others attempting to deliver humanitarian services.

Those who provide humanitarian aid, such as nongovernmental aid organizations – including those of religious groups – meticulously maintain a nonpartisan stance within the countries where they work. This is especially important where partisan conflict is rife and where governments are suspicious of such aid being used for partisan purposes. These agencies are compromised when they are viewed as extensions of U.S. foreign policy.

Humanitarian agencies cannot operate in a country without consent of the host government. Such duplicity adds to the perception that they are agents of external forces.

This cuts both ways, of course. Where governments are not popular and rule by coercion and force, the humanitarian organizations must also be seen as  functioning independently. It’s often a delicate dance.

This nonpartisan stance can be a matter of life and death. If  humanitarian workers in conflicted settings are viewed as agents of partisan agendas, their lives can be put at risk. Examples of kidnappings and murder of aid workers underscore this risk.

Beyond this life-and-death reality, the ZunZuneo texting service, as the Cuban SMS service was known, proved to be unsustainable. Sustainability is a key outcome of successful development, but perhaps ZunZuneo failed because development wasn’t the driving mission. The technology was implemented for other reasons.

In other difficult social situations, open-source texting services have been put to use in local contexts, and with adequate training and support, they have achieved much greater success at a much lower cost. These were implemented by small nonprofit organizations operating on shoestring budgets. Perhaps there’s a lesson here.

USAID has been an effective partner for humanitarian and nonprofit organizations, including The United Methodist Church, in different parts of the world. Let’s hope this episode is an anomaly and that USAID will make the adjustments needed to ensure that its mission and work are not compromised again.

Eight Ways Pope Francis is Changing the Conversation

Pope Francis is being celebrated for his ability to change the conversation of the Roman Catholic Church. His communication skills coupled with the stature of the papacy have brought a new tone to discourse within the church and captivated those of us outside that communion.

Pope Francis. Photo from presidencia.gov.ar via Wikimedia Commons
Pope Francis is reframing the conversation through strategic communicationsPhoto from presidencia.gov.ar via Wikimedia Commons.

Francis has, at least for the time being, put Christians and the Christian faith in a better light in the wider culture as well.

How has he done it? I suggest a few ways:

1. Scripture not subject. Francis frames his comments with Scripture and not with the hot topic of the day. This shift from subject to Scripture places him on a firm foundation to critique the culture without starting from a reference point in the culture wars, a point that is sure to polarize. This frees him to bring Scripture to bear on issues, rather than starting with issues and pulling Scripture into the conversation. He leads with values.

2. Theology not ideology. He refers to theological teaching in past encyclicals. Like Scripture, theology is part of his conversational foundation. This allows for consistency in his teaching, and it integrates the moral instruction of the church with Scripture. Equally important, it gives him the ability to speak without using the language of ideology.

3. Personal not provocative. The pope has personalized those matters that have high cultural sensitivity such as human sexuality, and other matters. He has made it clear he believes in the sacredness of human personality. Identifying people by labels is provocative but not his way, nor the way of Scripture.

4 Future not past. He speaks about what might be. He points to a vision of a social order that includes the poor. He has written about encountering those who are on the margins and embracing those who are left out. He has issued a call to Roman Catholic Christians to reach out and serve. This is not new, but Francis is issuing the call in a way that has not been heard recently, and it points to a vision of God’s preferred future.

5. Inspirational not institutional. He frequently refers to the joy of the gospel rather than starting his cultural analysis with existing conditions. He has spoken sharply about the harmful effects of consumer culture and the unfettered free market economy. His critique, however, is based on the theological precept that we are born to be in community with God and with each other, and in this relationship we find joy and inspiration for life. He says consumer society creates its own form of individualism. The free market economy diverts and isolates us from this joyful and inspired life with God. As a result, we become estranged from others, from God and, tragically, from our own true selves. Francis has reminded us that we are more than consumers, especially in God’s eyes.

6. Compassion not condemnation.Who am I to judge?” he asked when speaking about homosexuality. This is the most divergent path he could take from condemning persons of same-gender relationships. Francis has created an image of humility by speaking compassionately, even as he is the personification of the authority of the church.

7. Communication not exhortation. The pope has used multiple media to encourage the church to evangelize by encountering people in the culture. He is speaking in a communications environment in which we are present and comfortable. He has taken his message to Twitter. His outreach through church media and public media reveals strategic planning. He believes in communicating strategically.

8. Colloquial not complex. His language is more colloquial than academic. He has gotten attention, in part, because people understand him. His personal style has created a sense that he is speaking in the same language that we the people use.

While he has only begun, his communication style is a refreshing change. He is being credited with changing the conversation.

However, it is only a start. Institutions change slowly and resistance from within is great.

Church laws and procedures have not changed, and stories about human sexuality and clergy sexual abuse continue. He cannot control his narrative when these stories capture our attention as well.

Francis, by virtue of his position, is a celebrity. In a celebrity culture there is a pattern. What goes up also comes down. It’s as true for popes as for rock stars, a position Francis attained when he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.

We can hope that Francis’ papacy does not follow this trajectory. And we can be thankful that he is leading from his values and communicating thoughtfully with strategic purpose.

 

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