Ebola: a health risk, but more imminently, a growing LIVELIHOODS risk.
“If the Government’s ‘house to house’ lockdown exercise this weekend helps increase understanding of ebola, it could make a big difference” – Street Child
Nationwide reports collated this week by staff of Street Child of Sierra Leone, a unique national NGO with projects in over 30 national locations and routine contact with over 100,000 beneficiaries and family members have indicated that whilst there is wide public awareness of the existence of Ebola as a dangerous disease, critical Ebola knowledge is dangerously low in terms of potentially life-saving awareness on the true nature of the disease.
As a consequence, there is a high level of anxiety, which is paralysing in many quarters. As a result, hundreds of people are not only being needlessly infected with Ebola – but hundreds of thousands of people are needlessly bringing economic crisis upon themselves.
Firstly, it is obvious that if ordinary people do not have any detailed knowledge of the nature of the disease and how it transmits then they are unable to take the simple steps required to protect themselves from the deadly disease.
Secondly, the indications are that the generalised fear of Ebola is paralysing much of normal life – at great economic cost, with its own untold consequences. However, complete paralysis is not necessary. As much as real knowledge about the disease tells you what not to do, it also tells you what you can safely carry on doing.
One of the sections of society where specific ignorance about Ebola is at its lowest is in remote rural communities which have not had significant exposure to the disease yet. An example of one such community is Tambakha Chiefdom, Bombali District. John Momodu Kargbo, Director of Street Child’s rural operations, says of Tambakha, “Some of the people may not even have heard of the name ‘ebola’, they have just heard that there is something terrible in the country and that they should lie low. As a result, fewer farmers are going to the field and communities are frightened to travel to market with their goods, contemplating selling to travelling buyers who come to the village offering rock-bottom rates. In this way, even though there is not even one case of Ebola in Tambakha, ebola ignorance is needlessly wrecking lives already. However, with better knowledge about how the disease moves, community people would know that they do not need to be so scared, they need to be careful and change certain things but they can carry on with much of their normal economic lives”.
Kelfa Kargbo, Executive Director of Street Child, frankly admits that exactly the same was true within his organisation. “This is not just an issue for the remote areas and slums, it is widespread. Even quite senior staff of mine were frightened to move around in certain ways and our important work was really suffering. So, we contacted a major medical NGO, International Medical Corps and they agreed to come and give a 2-day workshop for our 50 management level staff. It was great. All my team left with their spirits lifted – they were happy that they now knew how to better protect themselves and their family, for instance through the wearing of long sleeves and really effective hand-washing; and the various paralysing rumours were dispelled, giving the teams confidence to head back out into the field and start making a difference again. Detailed Ebola education has made them both safer and restored productivity”.
He went on, “If this is the effect of Ebola education on my organisation, where we are talking of well educated people; think what the impact will be on a greater scale, especially for the isolated and less well educated, where ignorance is high, paralysing and dangerous”
“The tragedy is that many have died of Ebola simply through not knowing enough about it to protect themselves. What’s more, Ebola is also almost certainly causing deaths and devastation in places it has not even been to – because the fear of ‘this thing’, the panic, is causing people to needlessly cease the very things that are essential to their survival. We need to move beyond ‘brand’ awareness for Ebola to promoting, at every level of society, a true comprehension of what it actually is and the ways and degree to which we are required, and not required, to adjust our lives as a result. Or else the medical threat of Ebola will not leave us – and in any case, totally needless economic devastation will ruin the lives of even more. That Ebola is a severe medical threat is well grounded. The reality that Ebola is becoming a social and economic crisis does not seem to have landed yet”.
“I call on all major players to redouble their efforts and revisit their strategies to get real, detailed, useful Ebola knowledge mainstreamed across the entire population to this end, we are supportive of the Government’s planned lockdown and ‘house to house’ exercise this weekend, as we understand that a key objective is not just a nationwide screening for potential Ebola cases but also to educate individuals on the key facts about the disease, which in our opinion is vital. We need to move from Ebola awareness to Ebola knowledge. No more loudhailers – we have heard it. We need to go community to community, and really help people understand this thing well. It will take more than this one off event though. Local networks that are on the ground and trusted in these places, local NGOs or community groups even need to be utilised on an ongoing basis – the messages are not complex, non-medical people can be trained very quickly to help disseminate them. This is what is needed”.
“Finally, I also urge all actors to broaden their lens and stop defining this as purely a medical crisis – yes, we need doctors, protective equipment, beds and all the rest; but there is a real and widespread livelihoods crisis brewing out there now”
Tom Dannatt, International Director of Street Child, commenting specifically on the lockdown said, “We are aware that some of the medical agencies have expressed reservations the exercise – they are worried that there is no capacity to absorb a sudden surge of newly identified cases, which is predicted; they are also concerned that it might drive cases underground. They are the medical experts and theses concerns need to be taken seriously. However, we have a broad on the ground presence with 600 staff across the entire country and the picture we have very clearly built is that meaningful Ebola knowledge is dangerously low and this needs to change fast. As such, we are supporting the ‘ose to ose’ lockdown and hope it will make a difference. Like many agencies, we are lending vehicles and staff to the Government to help with this massive exercise. Uniquely, we are also setting feeding stations in every major town to enable street children with nowhere to go during this period to at least be sure of a decent daily meal”.