Ottawa, Canada – The flow of information became crucial during the Ebola outbreak because only facts about the virus could influence behavior change in affected communities and subsequently save lives. The mass media and other interpersonal communication channels, from the onset, struggled to effectively communicate messages about the virus to the public, given the limited knowledge among journalists – as well as among other responders in general – about Ebola.
On the other hand, rumors and misconceptions easily reached the already vulnerable communities that had little trust and confidence in the health sector. Many relied on conspiracy theories, and could not decode scientifically proven information that was being disseminated about the virus.
Considering my experience (from a local context), there were two basic noticeable communication ecosystems in the country during the crisis. Locals in rural Liberia relied on community radio stations during the height of the outbreak for information, while urban communities accessed information from print and electronic media. Civil society organizations and think tanks – otherwise known as intellectual forums in Liberia, where also a conduit of getting information.
Eradicating myths and rumors was complicated and many still linger even now that the outbreak is over.
The delays in acquiring information –hands-on facts – from the government and other international partners adversely impacted the way locals interpreted and understood messages. Given that Liberia’s health sector was limited and lacked the capacity to deal with Ebola, risk communication, health experts say, can make infectious diseases become much more dangerous when supported by wrong or misinformation.
Residents in most affected communities rejected several measures to curb the outbreak because of numerous communication barriers including improbable use of communication channels and poor messaging. This was partly because some international responders did not take the time to understand the context in Liberia or listen to the communities they served.
Initial messages about Ebola were didactic, and sometimes proved to be more dangerous than they should have been. For example, some international organizations shared messages saying that Ebola was deadly. They intended these messages to encourage people to seek treatment, but it sometimes had the opposite effect, because people did not see the point in seeking treatment if they would surely die anyway. Many other people believed that Ebola was not real.
The relationship between health workers and the government on one end and affected communities on the other became very tense when decisions to quarantine communities were reached, as well as the implementation of other measures.
What Could Have Improved Communications during Liberia’s Ebola Outbreak?
In Liberia, misinformation has the tendency to spread faster than balanced and factual information. Liberians refer to rumor as ‘Dey Say’ (They Say), since it’s a flow of information from one person to the other with the original source most often anonymous.
The high illiteracy rate in the country contributes to many people’s inability to adequately follow issues reported either in the print, online or broadcast media. Consequently, propaganda and misconception can be easily spread to manipulate the under –educated population.
The country’s literacy rate according to a 2010 national survey is 60.8%. It’s also important to consider Liberia’s historical context: during and after the civil war, many people felt they could not trust those in positions of power. There were times when authorities would say one thing and the rumor networks would say another, and the rumors would turn out to be true. So it’s easy to understand why people believed so many rumors during the outbreak.
Local Media and Ebola
The poor performance of several media houses – either due to the lack of training or ethical transgressions – has had devastating impact on the information ecosystem of the country since the primary medium of communication in Liberia is mass media: Radio, newspaper and television. Until recently there were no trained health journalists in Liberia, and many journalists do not have a science background, meaning that facts could easily be misreported or misinterpreted.
Also focus on here: What was your personal experience as a journalist? How did you approach the outbreak and the communication gaps? What did you personally do? (Talk about Local Voices and Local Voices website too)
A Difficult Lesson
Liberia has learned a difficult lesson after failing to put in place proper risk communication strategies coupled with the country’s porous health system. Training specialized health reporters and working with more health experts with a deep knowledge of contextual information, medical anthropologists or risk communicators, could have limited the casualties because the system could have had experts who were knowledgeable about communicating risk and at the same time well-informed about infectious disease outbreaks. It became realistic that curbing Ebola meant communicating effective and adequately during the outbreak.
Editor’s Note: This is a partial detail of Alpha Daffae Senkpeni’s presentation at the Canada Science Policy Centre’s conference ongoing in Ottawa, Canada. Senkpeni was presenting on a panel with the theme: “BACK TO THE FUTUER; WHAT EBOLE THOUGH US ABOUT RISK COMMUNITION.” He is the editor of www.Localvoicesliberia.com and also sub editor of FrontPage Africa newspaper as well as Program and news director at LACSA Radio in Grand Bassa County.