With the killing of a delegation of health officials, journalists and a pastor by a mob of rural villagers in Guinea, an even more tragic page has turned in the Ebola crisis.
The mission of the group was to dispel rumors about the outbreak, but the villagers thought they had come to spread the virus. The people attacked the group with rocks. Eight bodies were later found, bearing signs of having been attacked with machetes and clubs.
The event is a severe example of the irrational fears that are rife across the region. In Sierra Leone, the government’s Emergency Operations Center issued a release to dispel a rumor that soap to be distributed during the three-day lockdown, known locally as Ose to Ose Tok (House to House Talk), had been infected to spread the virus.
Fear drives these rumors. The immediate challenge is to arm trusted local people with accurate information to correct the inaccuracies and dispel the fear. The Ose to Ose Talk during the three-day lockdown in Sierra Leone is an example.
In addition, commentaries on television, radio and in print by trusted leaders such as Bishop John Yambasu, the United Methodist leader in Sierra Leone, are helping to correct misinformation and encourage cooperation with health programs to halt the spread of the disease.
United Methodist Communications is providing text messages to clergy in rural areas as well as cities in Sierra Leone and Liberia. These messages are consistent with those developed by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control. The church’s advantage lies in its grassroots network of clergy and leaders who live in the affected regions and are trusted.
Two messages are sent daily. The morning message is usually about health practices. For example, these messages were sent this morning:
Community health workers are trained to help us all and are essential to beating Ebola. Please cooperate with them during the lockdown. – Bishop J. Yambasu (Sierra Leone)
In the Ebola crisis, handle animals with protective clothing. Thoroughly cook animal products (blood and meat) before eating. – Ad., WHO (Bishop J. Innis) (Liberia)
Each afternoon a message based on Scripture is sent. For example: Do not worry … in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6) – Bishop J. Innis or Bishop J. Yambasu
We are also distributing solar cellphone chargers to give these messengers a cost-free means of keeping their phones charged.
The long-term challenge
This crisis underscores a truism: Poverty breeds social discontent and mistrust of unresponsive government. Liberians clearly do not trust their government. At the outset of the crisis, the rumor spread that the outbreak was false, created by the government to bring more foreign dollars into the country to pay corrupt government officials.
In the long term, the challenge is to provide education that leads to better understanding of disease and how to prevent infections. This will require effective public education. It is also necessary to build effective, accessible public health systems, and equally important to establish responsive, transparent governance.
Building public infrastructure that is common in societies in the global North, such as sanitary sewers, clean water, and Wi-Fi and mobile phone systems, is also a long-term solution.
Africa’s leaders must gain the trust of their citizens by ending corruption and conducting government affairs with transparency, and citizens must have access to the information they need to make responsible decisions. Access to information is a human right in this information rich age. It’s essential to good citizenship.
The stark realities of the Ebola crisis make clear the need for these basic changes. The world must stem the immediate crisis. But that is not enough. We must address the underlying deficits that periodically surface and remind us that inequities in the world make all of us less secure and threaten global well-being when systems break down.