Interview by Arthur Tokpah, ChildFund Guinea
Davidson Jonah, ChildFund’s field operations support director, is engaged in the challenging work of supporting our Ebola response, including opening Liberia’s Interim Care Center for children affected by the disease. He took a few minutes to talk with us during a recent field visit to Guinea and gave us an update on what is happening now.
You have now been involved with the Ebola emergency for months now. What helps you keep going?
Ebola is a much different kind of emergency response than I have ever been involved in. The situation is very hectic; you see things happen, and you are motivated to help save lives. I also admire the courage of the national staff. Like I said, it is a different emergency, and therefore, you don’t have lot of people coming in [to participate in the response] out of fear. So, those who are living with it are the people on the ground, the national office staff. As a native of West Africa, I should be there to support them and help to bring in as many resources as possible.
What have you observed in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in terms of community members’ acceptance of the fact that Ebola is a real disease?
The level of acceptance is not the same in all three countries. I see it going up in Guinea, though not up where it should be. [People must accept] not only that this is a disease and it kills, but also other information about how it spreads, such as contact with sick persons, handling corpses, etc., so that there would be a better environment through the outbreak and afterward. If you look at the issue of stigmatization, it is an issue of lack of acceptance and knowledge about the virus.
Do you think Ebola will be eradicated?
Yes, I am hopeful. For it to be effectively eradicated, we have to have a coordinated approach because of the way in which these countries border each other. So, even if Ebola gets eradicated in Guinea, if somebody from Sierra Leone who is infected comes over, because of the mode of transmission, there might be an issue here. Same with Sierra Leone and Liberia. One country cannot say yes, we have done it, if the other countries are still having the problem.
What messages have you gotten from children and communities?
Well, from the community, the message is that they want to do more, but they don’t have the resources and the means. They are aware of the situation, and they know that they need to get more people to understand — especially the community leaders, so we need more sensitization and awareness raising. For the children, they want to go to school.
What Ebola eradication strategies are the most significant in the three countries?
Sensitization and awareness raising are key. First, every household in all three countries has to be sensitized about this disease, and they have to get the same correct message. That is the only means. They can take care of those who are sick, and they can allow or co-operate on safe burial for those who are dead already, but the message needs to get down to the community.
For example, people from West Africa want to take care of and wash their dead, and that is a key way Ebola spreads. Our way of meeting and talking, greeting, showing friendship and love is through handshakes and hugging. That is another key way that Ebola can be transmitted.
So, until and unless people get the message, it is going to be difficult to eradicate Ebola. That is the key message, awareness about the mode of transmission, to break the chain, should be the strategy that all countries should adopt.
What is working well in the three countries, and what are some upcoming challenges and goals?
The issue of community sensitization and awareness is moving well. That is the great step that has been taken, but it needs to be strengthened and the correct messages circulated in all languages by community leaders. The next step is for that message to be transmitted down to every household. That’s where we should push. Because now that the community leaders are aware, we need to support them in taking the message to their people. They are the people who can do it best; they are the ones who can pass on the message because it is all about trust.
We heard in one or two meetings that people do not trust the health system; they don’t have confidence in this or that, so to build that confidence, you need to have their own people seen doing the actions, and then they learn by example. Yesterday, we went to the Ebola committee meeting, and when we washed our hands, a little girl also came and washed her hands. That is what needs to done.
What message do you have for the ChildFund staff in West Africa?
My message for them is to do what they are asking others to do. So, if we are asking community leaders to sensitize their people about Ebola, we should also take it upon ourselves to sensitize those around us. It seems small, but it will go a long way.