Lessons from Ebola to tackle COVID-19
Remembering the lessons of history saves lives and prevents pain, here are some lessons from the last epidemic we faced before COVID-19: Ebola.
The Ebola epidemic in Africa began in December 2013, with the first infection in Guinea, and then spread to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Senegal, the United States, Spain, Mali and the United Kingdom. While Ebola outbreaks have continued, the most critical period of the epidemic was between 2014 and 2016. Since then, those who witnessed that crisis have had time to reflect on the most relevant lessons it left.
Although the pandemic we are now experiencing is due to a virus with very different characteristics from Ebola (both in its symptoms and in its modes of transmission), it is also the closest epidemic we have had in time; the SARS and MERS-CoV epidemics were in 2002 and 2013, respectively.
Dr. Jonah Lipton is an anthropologist who was doing extensive fieldwork in Freetown when the Ebola epidemic hit Sierra Leone.
As he described in his column in The Guardian, "surviving Ebola was not just a matter of avoiding infection or getting treatment, but the broader social problem of getting through the crisis in a dignified and meaningful way.
In his column, Lipton tells the story of how the young couple he was living with had a baby at the height of the epidemic and, amidst their shattered support network, decided to perform an adapted version of the traditional naming ceremony. They did it later than usual, asking permission from the authorities and even attracting media attention, but this allowed them to meet again with people who were indispensable for raising their child.
Lipton's point is not that we violate the health measures imposed by the authorities. It is clear that the physical well-being of the population must be looked after.
But what Lipton does want to rescue, and which has come out again and again in gestures like the Italians leaning out of their balconies to sing, is that surviving the epidemic is not only a matter of viral contagion, but also of being able to meet others in ways that enrich our lives, that make them possible during and after the crisis.
Human beings do not know how to live a meaningless life and we are not capable of giving it to them alone. At this time we need to find ways to meet again, to give meaning back to relationships that have been worn out by habit and speed. Fortunately, we have the tools to do so: yes, social media, but also much older ones, like talking over food, playing board games, telling stories and playing with our shadows, as we did thousands of years ago by the fire in the cave.
In an Op-Ed column for Foreign Policy, Amara Mohamed Konneh, former Liberian Minister of Finance, sets out some of the points that were essential to bring such an aggressive epidemic as Ebola under control in his country, and one of the most compelling was communication.
First, it is important for the government to communicate with citizens in clear and efficient ways. In the case of Liberia, they found two key strategies: communicating with the leaders of the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia, to avoid large gatherings, and convincing the Muslim community to refrain from washing the bodies before burying them, as this was a huge vector of contagion.
The other way of communication they found with the population was through the creation of a catchy song that they played on all the radios. In this way they not only disseminated information that people probably would not have sought to access otherwise, but also forced them to continue thinking about health recommendations and to distinguish the symptoms of contagion.
Who knows, maybe coronavirus cumbia will help us this time.
Konneh's last recommendation is not to pretend that you have all the answers, but to be honest and ask for help. In their case, they asked for help from international organizations, multilateral banks and international aid institutions, and the help came.
Although this crisis has novel characteristics and proportions, it is not the first time that humanity has organized itself to face great difficulties and this time, despite the sorrows, it will not be the exception either.
Other strategies used during the Ebola epidemic to prevent infection included mapping indicators such as school absenteeism and pharmacy purchases to identify areas where outbreaks were most likely to occur. Also, to keep families isolated without affecting other aspects of their lives as much, UNICEF again used virtual curricula and, for the most isolated areas, radio classes.