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.

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