COVID-19: Learning from the Ebola crisis

After vaccinating a young woman, 48 year old Musu Kwalo washes her hands at a handwashing station.  Pipeline Clinic, Pipeline area, Paynesville City, Monrovia, Liberia. September 23, 2016.September 2016
Image: WaterAid/ Carielle Doe

Among the WaterAid country programs, those in Sierra Leone and Liberia have a special reason to particularly fear the spread of COVID-19, having lived through the Ebola crisis of 2015 which ravaged those two countries and neighboring Guinea.

Liberia was worst hit of the three with nearly 5000 deaths from that virus.

“At one stage in 2015, 92% of public buildings, hospitals, clinics, shops and offices in Liberia had installed hand-washing facilities to help protect people from the spread of Ebola. A few months later, it had all disappeared,” said WaterAid Liberia country director Chuchu Selma.

“I believe people will take on once again the COVID-19 hygiene messages and this time we could even get beyond the 92% of places where they are practicing safe hygiene.

Selma goes on, "but this time we are in a worse place as a country to respond effectively. The government is quite new, the economy is a real issue with inflation at 30%, loss of jobs, foreign companies leaving and shortages of petrol while the health system lacks strength.”

Cultural issues and fake news also affect how the population is prepared to adopt certain measures. Chuchu described one COVID-19 case in the country who had tested positive but the family refused to believe the diagnosis.The patient later died.

Chuchu said: “We have to work out how to care for those sick with the virus. And people must stay away from dead bodies which they would normally handle.”

He recalled how the Ebola crisis involved WaterAid taking on a different role . 

“We had to modify our entire approach and focus on the big stuff which led to a revolution in our plans. We didn’t sit and watch. We participated. We were able to be innovative and creative working with partners and contractors who were able to take the lead in field work. Communications were also necessary to make sure the messages were clear.

Here in 2020, the WaterAid Liberia team has a wider network of partners with whom to co-operate and they are part of existing platforms which makes it easier to be part of country-wide communications.

But the country and its health organisations along with the NGOs and international support bodies learned lessons from 2015. In particular, there was a lack of thought as to how to make the improvements in the health and WASH sectors sustainable.

“I think in 2015 a lot of the focus was on buildings and infrastructure when the real fight came from within communities about hygiene messages and safe, hygienic handling of the dead."

“This time round individual communities must take it upon themselves to spread the message which will be much more effective than any single government initiative.”