Emily Deeming firstname.lastname@example.org Communications Manager
The importance of trust cannot be stressed enough during a health crisis. In West Africa, we saw what happens when trust isn’t there – and how vital local peacebuilders are to bridge the gap between communities and government institutions.
The Ebola epidemic began in West Africa in 2013. The disease had a short incubation period and spread rapidly, largely because of the deep-rooted distrust towards government, security forces, and health workers.
The affected countries (Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone) had not long emerged from civil war and political crisis – the relationships within and between communities and with government institutions were still fragile. Responses to the Ebola epidemic ranged from disbelief to widespread conspiracy theories that the state manufactured the disease. Inconsistent information compounded mistrust towards government institutions, as well as humanitarian agencies. Health workers were driven away from communities, government buildings and health centers were attacked, and burial teams were stigmatized.
In this context, local peacebuilders had an essential role to play. Since 2010, Conciliation Resources has worked together with national NGOs in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to establish a network of locally-owned peacebuilding structures, called District Platforms for Dialogue (DPDs). These networks comprised trusted and respected community members who became a vital link between health workers, humanitarian organizations, and government institutions trying to prevent or respond to the epidemic.
The DPD members were often the first people communities turned to. During the Ebola crisis, they provided basic information such as the disease’s symptoms and how people could protect themselves. However, it is important to clarify their role – they were no health professionals. First and foremost, their role was to provide an environment where health workers could support communities.
DPDs held dialogue sessions to discuss their communities’ concerns and potential solutions. Thousands of people attended, including health workers, government officials, and Ebola survivors. Over time, it became evident that the most contentious issue in communities was the monopolization of Ebola response resources – inevitably, support was focused on Ebola survivors and health workers. Nevertheless, everyone was impacted by the epidemic. Markets were closed, economies collapsed, and social and cultural norms were disregarded.
Dialogue sessions, therefore, focused on providing an opportunity for people who were not recognized as direct victims to talk about the collective suffering of the community and the nation. Strategies that respond to epidemics must be conflict-sensitive in their design and implementation. They must recognize the collective experiences of the whole population to avoid further divisions and deepening tensions.
Lessons learned from how the Ebola epidemic was handled can inform ongoing responses to the current coronavirus crisis. To tackle COVID-19, we need to build relationships and collaborate with others to attain a more holistic response. Humanitarian agencies, peacebuilders, and local communities should work together to support conflict-sensitive responses to the pandemic and thus increase their capacity to reach those most in need.