"Fear has gripped the nation." With those words, the Rev. George Wilson of Liberia summed up the state of his country and described the cost of not allowing information to flow freely in a time of crisis.
Rev. Wilson, who is coordinating The United Methodist Church's response to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, said in a conference call that fear is preventing people from taking proper steps in dealing with the deadly virus.
His report was discouraging but motivating at the same time. Speaking with United Methodist Communications staff, he confirmed that hospitals are closing as workers voluntarily abandon their workplaces, and Liberians are self-medicating diseases such as malaria because they're too afraid to go to hospitals.
An op-ed in the New York Times by journalist Wade C. L. Williams about his experience covering the Ebola crisis in Liberia for Front Page Africa is revealing, especially because the emergency has spiraled out of control.
Williams recounted his difficulty early on gaining access to important places and people to tell the story. He was blocked by government officials.
Considering his report and listening to Rev. Wilson, I recalled a telephone call on June 7 from a member of a United Methodist Communications team in Sierra Leone. The team, including a writer from United Methodist News Service, a unit of United Methodist Communications, had discovered that Ebola was present near the site of a net distribution conducted by Imagine No Malaria.
Even then, a physician on the ground warned an outbreak was imminent. The virus had already spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone. But the story had not yet been told. "Should we tell it?" asked the UMCom staffer.
On the face of it, the answer seems clear. Of course we should tell the world.
But, as reporter Williams documents, such situations are rarely so simple. In Liberia, health ministry officials told reporters they should avoid travel to the affected area because they could spread the virus further. But the virus is not airborne and requires physical contact with the body or body fluids of an infected person, or ingesting bush food such as bats, monkeys or similar wild meat carrying the virus.
The government ministry sought to contain coverage as it released incomplete and misleading information. Rumors and misinformation can create panic. The results, as we now know, are fearsome and tragic.
Obstacles to Communicating
It's been my experience that telling stories in situations of conflict and tragedies such as this crisis can be far more complex and convoluted than what appears on the surface.
Government officials and local workers, for different reasons, may not want to reveal details of an incipient crisis. Despite their heroic efforts, health workers trying to contain this virus lack essential resources to isolate and treat affected patients. This can put them in a bad light. At ground level, workers who talk too much can lose their jobs. At a higher level, officials don't want to look ineffectual to their supervisors. At the national level, leaders don't want to appear unable to manage events like this.
A crisis like Ebola can harm business, affect tourism, influence investors and destabilize governments. Of course, officials consider the obvious human suffering and grief that results, but weighing all these factors takes time, and in emergencies time is critical.
In the early stages of an event like this, telling the story comes down to negotiating with, around and through obstacles to get the word out. This is true for local journalists as well as those from outside the country.
As expatriates connected with the church, we're always aware that we are in a country as guests of the host government and our actions can affect relationships between the government and the church in multiple ways. The ability to assist with effective health care, humanitarian aid and other significant missional efforts depends on good working relationships.
In the case of Sierra Leone, health officials were eager to get the story to the world and we reported quickly. All Africa News Service released a story two days before United Methodist News Service and that helped our reporting.
On June 9, Kathy Gilbert of United Methodist News Service provided a strong first-hand account of the situation in Kenema, the epicenter of the crisis in Sierra Leone. United Methodist Bishop John K. Yambasu issued an urgent call for help on June 25, and we continued to report on the situation.
Many days later, other news services began to report. And days after that, it became clear a regional crisis had mushroomed into a global hazard. The World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency Aug. 8.
By then, however, the virus had spread and an epidemic was at hand.
From this, I hope we are coming to realize:
- in an interconnected world, the free flow of accurate information is essential to global well-being and even to survival of life itself;
- the infrastructure necessary to carry information to an informed public is an instrument for the public good, and not only for commercial and entertainment uses;
- that infrastructure must be built out so that everyone has access to information as a basic human right;
- the church should advocate for this infrastructure and help to create it;
- the church has a role to play to ensure that stories are told. In this case, it is the story of people in a remote, under-served and overlooked place facing a public health crisis that, unchecked, has become a global health emergency.