Over 1,200 people have been killed by Ebola. It’s clear the Ebola crisis is a health issue. It’s even fair to say it’s a complex issue. But is it really a conflict issue?
Relating a deadly virus to violent conflict would seem like a stretch, if it weren’t for the recent violent raid at the WestPoint Medical Facility in Liberia this past Sunday. Residents of the capital’s largest slum raided the quarantine center removing 17 patients and hospital items, including blood-stained sheets and mattresses.
What caused people to expose themselves to that kind of risk? The outbreak is descending on already fragile states, playing on the fears and mistrust of the citizens towards their government. Sierra Leone is in a similar situation to Liberia. Sierra Leone is still recovering from its 11-year civil war that killed more than 50,000 and displaced more than 2 million people. Now they are juggling 810 cases of reported Ebola and mass hysteria.
With the Ebola outbreak continuing to ravage West Africa, our Sierra Leone Country Director, Joseph Jimmy Sankaituah, sat down to answer some basic questions about the effect of the virus on the ground and why peacebuilding matters within the Ebola crisis.
Q: Search for Common Ground is a conflict resolution NGO, yet it is getting involved in the Ebola crisis. Why is Ebola a conflict issue?
Sankaituah: Ebola has a conflict dimension because people are still in a state of denial about the virus and are blaming the spread on external forces. Because of this denial, clinics and medical institutions are being attacked by residents. Some community members are accusing medical personnel for being responsible for the death of Ebola patients. In Sierra Leone, the two districts that are quarantined have accused the government of a witch hunt. Our work in Sierra Leone is aimed at helping the community change their perception about the virus and help them believe. We are also helping to increase and improve information about prevention and early treatment
Q: We’ve been hearing a lot of panic in the international news about Ebola. How bad is the crisis in West Africa? What are the attitudes on the ground in Sierra Leone surrounding Ebola?
Sankaituah: The news about the virus has caused serious panic. This is in large part to the information that has been disseminated since the beginning. To date, there is less than a 50% of death rate of the Ebola Virus in Sierra Leone, yet it was reported that the virus kills 90% of its victims. This information coupled with the State of Public Emergency, as well as the economic consequences that followed the crisis, increased panic among the population.
The situation is bad in Sierra Leone due to the fact that the capacity of the health sector is limited. Health care workers lack the technical knowledge and resources to manage the spread. Besides Ebola, people are also dying from curable diseases due to lack of access to services. All the resources in the country are now directed at the fight against Ebola.
Q: Why has the Ebola crisis gotten so out of hand in West Africa?
Sankaituah: Though the government in the region lacks the capacity, this is the first huge medical outbreak in the region that has overwhelmed both the government and medical INGOs. Most of the health related outbreaks in the past were handled by medical humanitarian agencies working in the respective countries. However, neither the government nor the medical humanitarian agencies working in the region were well prepared for the scale of the outbreak this time.
Q: What stigmas and suspicions are held locally surround Ebola?
Sankaituah: When an outbreak, such as this, appears for the first time in communities, they are met with stream denial, followed by fear, and then action to stamp it out. The fact that the virus is spread through bodily contact is one reason why people are stigmatized. As for suspicions, the carriers of the virus for decades were animals that provided food for the locals. To accept that bats, monkeys, and other bush animals are the carriers of the disease is difficult to believe. The questions being asked are, “How come our food has turned out to be carriers of a virus that kills in this number?” and “When did bats, monkeys, and other animals catch this virus?”
Q: How has the relationship between the government and the people played a role in the crisis, if at all?
Sankaituah: In Sierra Leone, there is a high suspicion among those in the North that the government is targeting them. They believe that this is payback because they voted in large numbers for the opposition in the last election, so the government is targeting them unfairly. On the other hand, there is little engagement between the government and the people when it comes to seeking consent for actions. For example in the rural Western area, the government is building an isolation center for Ebola patients, and the community is resisting the construction on grounds that the community was not consulted. Even in the midst of the emergency, the people are still demanding their right to be consulted.
Q: What are some common ground principles that can be applied to the Ebola crisis?
Sankaituah: Using our soap opera drama, we are reinforcing the messages being disseminated to the population, while at the same time ensuring that the messages are contextually relevant to the situation. We are also producing spot messages and jingles that encourage people to report to clinics immediately if they see the early signs of the virus.
Q: What is SFCG Sierra Leone doing to help with the Ebola crisis?
Sankaituah: We have a staff member whose responsibility it is to provide our office with the most up to date statistics about the Ebola virus daily. We are producing 80 special editions of our most popular radio drama on Ebola, as well as spots and jingles on the virus, to be broadcast on 27 radio stations. Finally, we are a member of the communication and social mobilization task force on Ebola in Sierra Leone.
Q: How has Ebola affected SFCG staff and their peacebuilding work? Do you have any examples?
Sankaituah: The situation in Liberia and its impact on the families left behind is causing serious problems for me on a daily basis. One of the hardest hit communities, Kakata, where 17 nurses died from one hospital and where my relatives and friends live is causing me some pain. In Sierra Leone, no staff have reported directly being affected.
Q: What changes need to happen to prevent a crisis like this from happening again?
Sankaituah: To improve the health delivery system and look in the direction of warning signs for health crises in the future.
Q: You have the final word. What would you like people to know?
Sankaituah: If resources become available, our team is prepared to increase its role in the social mobilization and communication campaign to reduce the spread of Ebola and support a team of 100 people with whom we have worked in these communities.
Trust and communication are essential in deescalating this crisis. If you’d like to know more about this our work in Africa, visit www.sfcg.org/africa.