Ebola became a matter of belief in Liberia

Funeral of an Ebola victim in Sierra Leone. Photo: ACT Alliance

Do you believe in Ebola? This can be a conversation opener between passengers in a Liberian taxi. Many Liberian see the deadly haemorrhagic disease as an invention of the government. The sceptics see Ebola only as a way for the corrupt policymakers to leach additional funding from the western countries. False information and distrust towards the authorities has made controlling the aggressive disease more difficult in West Africa, says Leena Lindqvist, Finn Church Aid’s Regional Representative in Liberia.

Spreading of the Ebola virus that started in Guinea in spring continues in West Africa. There are already 54 cases in Liberia, and in addition, 20 more suspected. In Sierra Leone, the number is almost 200.

”What makes the situation extremely difficult in Sierra Leone, is that 145 sick are in ’unknown location’. The relatives refuse to leave them in isolation and in care. This of course adds the risk of spreading”, Lindqvist says.

”People in the greatest risk are the relatives of the sick. The disease spreads through bodily fluids, but only when it has reached its advanced state in its carrier. Therefore, the people taking care of the sick at home are in a great risk of being infected themselves.

Difficult to intervene with the funeral culture

There were no preparations whatsoever against Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone after the events in Guinea, and the states are not prepared to react to pandemic”, Lindqvist says.

Because trust towards officials and the government is weak, many citizens doubt the instructions given about the deadly disease. One example is the neglect of orders given about funeral arrangements.

In West Africa, it is customary to touch and hug the deceased at funerals. Ebola however spreads most effectively from a deceased person.

“Many are in shock over the fact that the instructions forbids touching the deceased. People refuse to change their old funeral customs”, Lindqvist says.

On the other hand, written instructions are often left misunderstood, because in the countryside, where the disease is spreading, people rarely know how to read. It is also hard to bring information to the remote areas.

Problem of corruption

When it comes to health information, the media provides little help.

“Liberia has freedom of press, but the quality of the press is low. Therefore unconfirmed and scandalous information is spread easily.”

Corruption has made preparations for the disease more difficult. Part of the officials and politicians has seen the precautions as an opportunity to raise funds. The donors have been asked for cars, travel insurances and other support “in the fight against Ebola.”

The dramatic numbers lately have however made the governments to take the matter more seriously. Sierra Leone’s ministers, for example, have agreed to give half of their July’s salaries to the work against Ebola.

Organisations important in distributing information

The UN’s radio is practically the only national radio channel in Liberia. Through it, information, for example about washing one’s hands, is given in many languages.

Finn Church Aid’s local staff is voluntarily speaking about Ebola to their own communities, partner organisations and local people.

“This is important work. The employees of international organisations are well respected in their own communities and they are trusted. We also held information meetings at our schools in refugee camps” Lindqvist says.

Bush meat spreads Ebola

In addition to the lack of information and poor hospital conditions, Ebola is also connected to bad food. Usually it is to do with bush meat, in other words eating wild animals that are caught nearby. The disease is being spread through poorly cooked carcasses of bats and other animals. When there’s no money, people in remote villages eat carcasses.

Very few of the infected survive Ebola. The survival rate is about ten percent, but conquering Ebola requires good treatment. It is crucial that the disease is diagnosed on time. This is however rare.

”People here in Liberia have a different relationship towards sickness than for example in the western countries. Malaria is a common ailment that comes and goes. When people are used to being very sick at times, they don’t know or want to go get treatment.

Education better alternative than medicine

During the last 40 years, Ebola has killed nearly 2000 people. The pharmaceutical industry has not been interested of the disease during this time.

“The best way to eventually get completely rid of Ebola, is to educate people and take particular care of the remote areas”, Lindqvist says.

Text: Satu Helin