By D. Kaihenneh Sengbeh
The Ebola outbreak
“In Gaye Dukpaye, we are not only on the alert, we will also keep engaging everyone that we have not won the war,” Shadrack S. Chea told me right before a big white barrel donated by CHAP International. The barrel contained diluted chlorinated water for passersby to wash their hands. It is part of measures the community has employed to fight the Ebola outbreak since last year. “Wash your hands; Ebola is still here; we need to fight it…” I heard him wooing passersby as a walked away.
The community-based approach has credibly been one of the best ways in fighting the fatal Ebola virus disease (Ebola in this article) which has claimed about 4,000 lives in Liberia since the first outbreak in March last year. It is no longer worth a news that the virus has caused serious damages to lives, broken and detached hundreds of families forever, fractured the country’s feeble economy, led to the shutting down of the country’s ‘mess-up’ educational system, and affected more than three million people on the Liberian soil. But of even greater than the above is the fact that the world’s deadliest anti-human disease outbreak has exposed how frail and shabby our country’s health system has been, and has distressingly provided a prospect on how to prepare for any future pandemic after the Ebola, or during another Ebola outbreak.
A Broken System
Fighting Ebola hasn’t been anything uncomplicated globally, least to say Liberia, one of the poorest and least developed nations on Earth — though with abundant biodiversity and natural resources. Boasting of at least 40% of the Upper Guinea Forest in West Africa, endowed with diamond, gold, bauxite, iron ore, substantial yearly rainfall as well as oil deposits, Liberia currently sits at the lower end (position 175) of the human development index. Nearly 70% of the people live below the poverty belt, close to 80% are vulnerably employed, while illiteracy accounts for over 70%.
Despite significant national and international progress made in battling the outbreak of the virus so far, the war on the world’s seriously deadly invisible enemy continues, and it might not end totally anytime soon unless every citizen in every county, district and chiefdom, township, and every community is totally involved. Interestingly, this approach of communities taking the response into their own hands (like what Chea, quoted above, and his community are doing) has paid off well in the country’s efforts to beat out the virus. There is a now sigh of relief, though the battle is still far from over.
The Iron Hand
Initially, the government instituted a state of emergency, deployed military personnel in the streets to scare off citizens, quarantined up to 60,000 people, declared a curfew, closed schools, and shut the country’s borders including all border trades to combat the disease. Of course, some of these measures helped in dealing with the situation at some level, it however created tension among the people and promoted doubts that the disease was real. It further facilitated rumors that Ebola is man-made and that western powers have given millions of dollars to the government to try the effectiveness of the virus. Don’t be surprised; that’s how many of our people thought initially, especially when the government’s response was poor as the international community watched the virus ravage lives in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Getting the People Involved
Therefore, these measures would have remained meaningless and ineffective in the absence of a community-based approach that gets the people themselves involved—in changing their minds and attitudes—in fighting the virus in battling the virus together.
“At first, the entire fight of the Ebola virus was a top-bottom approach, with the government using an iron hand to impose restrictions including use of the military to make people obey and stick to safety measures,” the Executive Director of the Foundation for International Dignity, Roosevelt A. K. Woods noted in October 2014. “This didn’t actually help much because the citizens were not participating, unlike what has happened in most parts of the country of late—the community-based approach. This approach which has taken solid roots across the country is excellent and progressive in battling Ebola.” Woods argues that the measure is the best because citizens — community members, youth groups and students — talk to one another about the virus, its spread and prevention.
According to Godwin Kamara, an Ebola ambulance operator, the number of deaths and people falling to the Ebola virus disease began falling when the communities themselves got fully involved in the fight. Kamara is one of the operators of the six ambulances brought into the country (now in Sierra Leone) by Representative Saah H. Joseph, famed as one of Liberia’s Ebola heroes. Kamara and team picked up hundreds of Ebola patients and victims in nearly all communities in Montserrado. “It had been really challenging and we sometimes have sleepless nights he recalled in October. “This measure [setting up voluntary community task forces] is helping many people actually understand, and is contributing to contact tracing. It has led the sick to come out and report themselves at functional health facilities and Ebola treatment units and care centers for testing and treatment. Our response has really reduced he told me in December via phone.”
The Gaye Dukpaye Experience
Laudably, the community-based approach also known as the “people-centered approach” has attracted and led many communities, including Gaye Dukpaye, where I have lived for over 20 years, setting up anti-Ebola awareness task forces. Indeed, there are Ebola taskforces across communities Monrovia and beyond, and these groups of volunteer mostly young men and women, have and are playing very important role in the fight against Ebola. The fight becomes successful at this level because those who die of Ebola or who get infected are from the communities.
“They wanted us (communities) to go to them instead of them coming to us when the virus came,” Madam Rose L. Kamara told the Gaye Dukpaye Community Ebola Awareness Task force during a day-long training for members last November. “If [the fight] had taken the trend like it is now [community engagements], the number of people that died would never have died; now the government and NGOs have realized that it’s the community that should take the lead,” the Director of the Du-Port Road Community HIV&AIDs Organization, said. Madam Kamara’s organization had been engaged by an Irish humanitarian Mrs. Adrienne Blomberg-Sarwahpue to train the community’s anti-Ebola team when she spoke to this writer.
Gaye Dukpaye is one of the oldest communities in the Township of Bardnersville. Situated in District #11 of Montserrado County, the community is located on the fringes of the Bardnersville Housing Estate. The community has a population of nearly 1,400, four hand pumps, four primary and elementary schools, a cemetery and two churches. Women constitute nearly 53% of the population. Since the outbreak of Ebola in March 2014, no resident has shown symptom or died of the virus in the community’s three blocks.
From the onset, the leadership of the community conclusively believed that a community-based approach could significantly help defeat the high flying Ebola virus. It believed the approach was workable because the cases of Ebola originate from individuals and homes in communities.
In a bid to achieve the goal of securing the community free from any outbreak, the community established a taskforce in August 2014 (at the peak of the outbreak) and began seeking support to strengthen the taskforce to reach out to the people. Among other things, the community’s publicity committee produced simplified Ebola awareness massages in line with the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization’s safety and prevention measures, and distributed them across the community. Poster messages and placards were placed at strategic areas that attracted public reading. “This thing is serious and targets everyone,” Mr. Benedict N. Bropleh, chair of the community said in a September 2014 leadership meeting.
The central message to the community, through the use of mega phones was that ‘when one person gets Ebola, everyone is threatened’. In their messages, the taskforce advised residents not to hide sick people or welcome sick relatives into their homes, but should encourage them go to hospitals and treatment centers. The community also halted all forms of burial in the cemetery that exist there. At one point, residents heavily resisted a group from New Georgia Township that came to burry there at night.
The work of the taskforce has been to go from block-to-block and from house-to-house, creating awareness and providing messages of hope about the Ebola virus disease. Rather than the community residents only listening to radios and reading newspapers and placards, they have had their own sons and daughters at their door sills telling them all about Ebola: prevention, mode of transmission, contact tracing among others. This awareness team further explains other safety measures created by the community in addition to the conventional messages of washing hands frequently, avoiding of handshake and touching of the ill and the dead.
Since everyone can not afford to buy hand washing buckets with faucets, one of the community eminent residents, Assistant Public Works Minister George Yarngo, provided 10 washing buckets and chlorine for distribution to the poorest of the poor. “We have to reach out to this group of people,” he said. “If we do not do so, all of us will be at risk, should they get infected.” The community leadership bought additional buckets and several other people got buckets in their homes.
The Success Story
Lacking resources and requisite technical skills, the Community produced and sent out a concept note to several groups and humanitarians to assist with anti-Ebola materials and training for its taskforce. The community’s proposal caught the attention of an Irish humanitarian married to a Liberian. “This is one of the best proposals that I have ever received from any community,” Mrs. Adrienne Blomberg-Sarwahpue said when she donated 60 buckets with faucets, Clorox, soap and among others in September. CHAP International has also provided buckets and barrels mounted in strategic public places in the community. By late December, the community leadership had secured and distributed more than 120 buckets with chlorine among residents.
“So far our fight against Ebola in the community has been very successful because we have not experienced any suspected case since the outbreak,” stated Mr. Shadrack S. Chea, coordinator of the Gaye Dukpaye Community Ebola awareness taskforce. “We will continue with our activities. We are carrying out our awareness from doors to doors; we are telling people that Ebola is not yet over, and we will not stop the campaign until Liberia is declared Ebola-free.”
Chea disclosed the source of his team’s success: “I have received one hundred percent cooperation from the community from the initial stage to present, and that is the most reason why we have been successful.”
Chea said besides taking the challenge to educate the community on the Ebola virus, members of the team themselves have benefited from several training opportunities from partners and organizations. “We have benefited from three successful workshops and we still have three more to come,” Chea continued. “These workshops have given us the full knowledge of how to take prevention measures individually at our homes and collectively in the community. We cannot fight Ebola unless we have the knowledge of preventing it, and that is why we think a community taking the war into its own hands is the best way to deal with this demonic virus.”
No Retreat, No Surrender
Chea called in government and its partners to keep empowering and engaging Ebola taskforces in communities to keep the messages going if Liberia should not slip back into the chaotic situation of last year. “In Gaye Dukpaye, we are not only on the alert, we will also keep engaging everyone that we have not won the war,” Chea told me right before a big white barrel donated by CHAP International, containing chlorinated water for passersby to wash their hands. “Wash your hands; Ebola is still here and we need to fight it; no retreating and no surrendering,” I heard him wooing passersby as a walked away, and passersby did stop by.
About The Author: Danicius Kaihenneh Sengbeh is a respected Liberian journalist, blogger, poet, and writer with media experience since 2001. He has significantly covered infrastructure development and written on several national and international issues including press freedom, human rights, among others. He’s Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia and currently freelancing and consulting. He’s a UN Media Fellow and UN Medal Award-winning journalist who holds a Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in Mass Communication and Sociology from the University of Liberia and a Diploma in Journalism from the International School of Journalism. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; +231886 586531/+231777586531