Politics of Ebola: Facing the Pandora
When the first stories of ebola was reported in the Kailahun areas in Sierra Leone, it was treated with disdain by the authorities in Freetown.
Indeed the feeling carried out was that of “this too will pass”. Indeed on national radio and television, some people attempted me say it was not true that the disease was only in Guinea. It got to the point where it took on a political slant – the SLPP (Sierra Leone People’s Party) said that the All People’s Congress (APC) government of Ernest Koroma is taking no action because the Kailahun, Bo, and Kenema are traditionally SLPP strongholds. The special assistant to the president Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden posted a series of posts on Facebook about the in-action of the Health Minister and in her words (those who should know better) at the time. One of such posts is reproduced here:
“Still no comments from me on antics from those who should know better. 😦
On a more important note however, I will like you all to help me pray for our people in Kissi Teng chiefdom, Kailahun, near Guinea border. The news from there, if confirmed to be what is suspected, is very distressing. May the soul of Nurse Messie Konneh who passed away last night in Daru, as she was being rushed to Kenema from Koindu and all the other victims so far (two of whom are being buried right now as I type), rest in perfect peace. Let us also pray for Traditional Birth Attendant Yawa Korseh who is in critical condition and being transferred from Koindu even as I type this message. The medical team have taken samples for tests. Please, let us pray.“
Even more informative is the series of comments that followed the post. A read through Dr. Blydens’ posts are a mix of scaremongering, in-action of government and call on God to help” There was no targeted information to educate or show how government was working on the issues. There is a post of how she was paying form her private savings freight charges on donations sent from Canada.
While this wrangling was ongoing, the disease moved to Liberia. With President Sirleaf seldom at the seat of government, that country also played musical-chairs with the threat of ebola with the Commander-in-Chief out of town. (Note that the government of Liberia is highly macro-managed by Mrs. Sirleaf and thus leaves the government exposed when swift decisions are required).
From February 2014, the ebola virus and disease has been circling Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Not counting the month of July so far, the World Health Organisation shares “Confirmed, probable, and suspect cases and deaths from Ebola virus disease in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, as of 30 June 2014”
|New (1)||Confirmed||Probable||Suspect||Totals by country|
|(1) New cases were reported between 25 and 30 June 2014.|
While the framing and contextualization of the epidemic has led to difficulty in managing its spread. Susan Shepler’s blog highlights some of the social issues of spirituality, gullibility and rumours. The Spokes person for UNICEF explains:
“Rumours and denial are fueling the spread of Ebola and putting even more lives at risk,” said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “Some people still deny that the disease is real. Others believe that it doesn’t have to be treated.”
Further, she says of combating the virus:
“If we are to break the chain of Ebola transmission, it is crucial to combat the fear surrounding it and earn the trust of communities. We have to knock on every door, visit every market and spread the word in every church and every mosque. To do so, we urgently need more people, more funds, more partners.”
Providing money to fight the disease is one of the biggest drawbacks. Sierra Leone’s government has not shown commitment beyond begging donors. There is little government is doing to win corporate support. With more than 3 telecommunication companies, with a total of 2 million subscribers, there is yet a mechanism to use that resource in what is now clearly a national emergency.
Until a few weeks ago, there was no free toll centre (now the ministry can be reached on 117 via all operators). I was in Freetown and Monrovia in April till end of May and not once did I get a cell broadcast about Ebola. No jingles or media messaging on the radio or television.
Perhaps on issue that Dr. Shupler mentioned is the disconnecting feeling by families and loved ones from the sick/infected person. You can not visit them, or even bury them when they die. Families can not give a “befitting burial” – so the question remains –
who wants to bury their father, son, daughter or mother like a dead chicken?
What can be done?
There is no need to give up in despair. I believe that their is opporutninty to get a handle on the spread of the virus:
- Utilize the telecommunication industry – mobilize them to give cell broadcasts in English, Krio and other local but popular languages. Send targeted messages at least once daily. The messages should:
- target the political discuss – it is not an APC strategy to have people in Bo, Kenema and other places to die
- It is not a curse. You need to keep good hygiene – wash your hands!
- quotes from influential Sierra Leoneans
- Use social media. There are at least 200,000 Sierra Leoneans on Facebook, Twitter and other media. I am excited to hear the Ebola Song on SoundCloud! Get Emmerson and other popular artistes to join the train.
- Find safe, and humane way in burying and involving family members.
- Develop programmes to take care of families who have lost loved ones to reduce discrimination and other abuse of rights
- Political parties should be seen working on this as an issue of National Emergency.
- Finally, the public relations work of the Ebola Committee MUST be manned (excuse the sexist word) by a none political individual who understands the role and effect of “framing, context, targeting and messaging” in such a crisis.
Ebola in Sierra Leone and her close neighbours is more than a 3-country crises. If care is not taken this will engulf all of West Africa and therein lies the disaster.
It is time to put down God, and get to work!
The author: Tsike-Sossah is the Director of ACIPP West Africa and the lead consultant of ACIPP Consulting. Views expressed here are solely my personal views and do not reflect the views of my employers.