Decades of corruption, deep-rooted mistrust of government and weak public services in Liberia have hastened the spread of the Ebola virus, and much more needs to be done to bridge a communication gap between government and citizens, say civil society groups and analysts.
On 30 August, authorities lifted an enforced quarantine on the West Point area of Monrovia, 10 days after police officers sealed the slum, fuelling frustration and sparking clashes in which a 15-year-old boy was killed.
After the lifting of the cordon, West Point residents marched through Monrovia singing, in Liberian English, “West Point no Ebola! West Point come let go!”
“I’m happy to be free,” West Point resident Boakai Passawe, a construction worker who was unable to work during the quarantine period, told IRIN. “But people are not going to forget what happened. I feel I was cheated of my work, of my life. When you have a child to take care of you don’t just go away from them,” he said of the government’s handling of the quarantine.
Liberia may have a reputation as a post-conflict success story on the surface, but for years a quiet fever of discontent has been brewing. Civil society groups say the Ebola outbreak has pulled it to the surface and highlighted the government’s inability to cope.
“This is a crisis of governance as much as it is a crisis of Ebola,” Blair Glencorse, executive director of the Accountability Lab, an organization that empowers citizens to build creative tools for integrity and accountability in their communities, told IRIN.
“Capacity and accountability haven’t been built within systems; not just healthcare systems, but financial management, education, and all the systems that allow the state to deal with crises,” he said. “So when you have an emergency like this, it quickly indicates that the government doesn’t have the trust of its people, it doesn’t have the capacity and it doesn’t have the tools it needs to handle such an outbreak.”
By 26 August, Liberia’s Ministry of Health had reported 1,471 cases of Ebola and 834 deaths, more than either Sierra Leone or Guinea. All three countries have similarly fragile healthcare systems, but in Liberia, a long history of mismanagement, exclusion and poor communication strategies have fuelled discontent among Liberians that the administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in power since 2005, has not been able to shake.
“Responding to an Ebola outbreak would challenge any country, but the ferocity with which Ebola has struck Liberia has been intensified by several factors, notably a weak health network… and the cross-border nature of social relations,” Corrine Dufka, associate West Africa director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IRIN.
There has been some progress, said Dufka. “President Sirleaf and her government inherited a country with a profoundly devastated infrastructure, economy and institutions, and they have made considerable progress on a number of fronts.”
“That said, the government and their partners were slow to address the key factor underscoring Liberia’s history: endemic corruption,” Dufka added. “The government’s considerable rhetorical attention to the scourge has not been matched by a well-resourced and aggressive anti-corruption institution and support for the judiciary, which meant the same patterns of embezzlement and corruption have been able to persist.”
Within this context, many Liberians have been slow to trust accurate messages from the Ministry of Health about the nature of Ebola and the ways in which it can spread. Many people feared that Ebola could be a hoax. Others circulated rumours that the virus might be a ploy to net officials funding from international donors.
“Lies, mismanagement and misinformation”
“People trust each other more than government,” Liberian student Saki Golafale told IRIN. “For a long time people have harboured an idea of what government is. There are perceptions of lies, mismanagement and misinformation. Governments past and present have not stood strong enough to reverse those ugly thoughts that citizens have about them,” he said.
Some international media reports have cast Liberians as uneducated or ignorant rumour-mongers. But Susan Shepler, an associate professor at American University and a specialist on education and conflict in Sierra Leone and Liberia, said it is easy to understand why many Liberians tend to doubt government information.
“People are not acting out of ignorance, they’re acting out of experience,” she told IRIN. “In Liberia people have historically used community information and rumours as a way of getting information at times when they weren’t sure whether to trust the government,” she said.
“Information was vital during Liberia’s conflict but official sources were often so unreliable that people relied on informal networks instead,” Shepler added. “At times the media and authorities reported one thing and the rumour network said something else, and it turned out that the rumours were right.”
As the Ebola crisis escalates throughout West Africa, the Sirleaf administration is now faced with plugging an information gap that grew from such a legacy.
Establishing stronger channels of communication is vital, say observers. But Russell Geekie, chief of public information for the UN Mission to Liberia (UNMIL), said the nature of Ebola has made many communication methods difficult.
“The United Nations Mission to Liberia [UNMIL] is using all of its considerable public information capabilities to support the government-led response and prevention efforts,” he said. “But we cannot hold soccer matches or other events that draw large crowds. Attendance at video clubs has dwindled. This is a reason that radio is so critical; our station regularly features UN officials, government ministers and health workers in the field to dispel rumours and explain policies such as the quarantines of communities.”
Key role for youth groups
And in Monrovia, youth groups are emerging at the forefront of efforts to spread accurate information about the spread of Ebola.
Pandora Hodge is the national coordinator for Kriterion, a student-run independent art-house cinema group that is calling for greater Ebola awareness. Its members are going door-to-door in Monrovia communities such as Sinkor, Clara Town and Bensonville, distributing materials and information they hope will empower people to curb the spread of the virus.
“People trust our members once they tell them that they are students and that they’re not getting paid for this,” Hodge told IRIN. “The student volunteers knock on every door and explain to people that they are doing this because the schools and universities are closed and they want to help, not to make money. And then people start to listen,” she said.
“The difficulty is that people have been taking this virus to be a joke. So it’s been happening right in front of their faces and they cannot do anything about it,” she added. “They don’t trust the government but they trust us, so we explain to them that if they do everything to avoid the virus, they will not have to go to hospital.”
Historically in Liberia, many young people have said they feel excluded and lack a stake in the system.
During Liberia’s 2012 presidential election that saw Johnson-Sirleaf elected for a second term, a sense of exclusions was rife, particularly among young supporters of the main opposition party, who clashed with police, leaving several people dead.
The government vowed to focus on programmes to help youths, but many people feel that little has been done. “Youth versus the rest is the real political cleavage in Liberia,” Shepler said.
Titus Davis, the manager of NGO Equipping Leaders International, runs a programme that sends young graduates and pastors into communities to help plug the information gap.
“Our graduates and pastors are helping people who are frustrated, desperate and hopeless,” he said. “When we visit communities, people trust our team because we are pastors and teachers carrying messages of hope, not just health education. Social action can really help.”
Accountability Lab’s Glencorse said the Ebola outbreak is allowing young people to usher in positive change and forge the building blocks that could lead to a stronger civil society.
“There’s only so much the government is able to do, and that’s become clear during this outbreak,” he said. “But this crisis could be a way for some youth groups to serve their communities and build the trust that’s missing.”
A collaborative effort from government, international stakeholders and youth and civil society groups as this outbreak continues could help to rebuild eroded trust and repair the social exclusion that many Liberians feel has been a permanent presence in the country for decades.
HRW’s Dufka said that despite structural weakness and capacity constraints, the government now has an opportunity to connect with citizens.
“The government, and, importantly, Liberia’s legislature, should use the Ebola epidemic to make governance gains by improving lines of communication, ensuring the transparent use of funds and accepting a zero tolerance policy on security force abuses.”