By Éamonn Meehan
From localised beginnings, the Ebola outbreak has rapidly grown into first a national and now a regional crisis. Health services outside of West Africa, including our own in Ireland, are on high alert to ensure that this does not become a full-blown international outbreak.
Having just returned from Sierra Leone, where I saw first-hand the potential for the virus to spread at a frightening rate, one thing is very clear: the battle against Ebola will be won or lost in West Africa.
There are currently 10,000 cases throughout the region but at the rate it is spreading, it is feared that by December there could be 3,000 new cases a week in Sierra Leone alone. If that were to happen, the country simply could not cope. We have a strict time-frame of five weeks in which to bring this outbreak under control.
Photo caption: Fatu Sesay washes her hands at a handwashing station. In Sierra Leone, Trócaire is working with Caritas to prevent the spread of Ebola. Photo credit: Tommy Trenchard for Caritas
Sierra Leone is already a desperately poor country. The health services here were extremely weak even before this outbreak. To give an illustration of just how poor Sierra Leone is, one in five children do not reach their fifth birthday.
The weak structures that exist in Sierra Leone are desperately struggling to contain the most serious threat to the country since the brutal civil war came to an end in 2002.
There is an urgent need for more health centres, more beds and more medically trained personnel. Resources simply aren't coming on stream fast enough and the world needs to take note.
Attempts to halt the spread of the virus were hampered in the early weeks by a lack of information about how to reduce the risk of contamination. A mistrust of Government made matters worse as people did not believe what they were being told.
Trócaire is working with local leaders, both religious and civic, to get vital messages into communities. These initiatives are helping to tackle the spread of the virus.
The potential spread of the virus in the capital city, Freetown, is particularly worrying. There are over one million people living in Freetown and there are already 1,000 cases of Ebola in the city. Given how close people live together, there is a real fear that it could spread quickly.
Aside from the health risks posed by Ebola, this crisis has had many devastating side-effects. People are now too scared to go to health clinics and are dying of other diseases, such as malaria. Tens of thousands of women will give birth over the coming months without any medical assistance.
The crisis has also increased poverty. There have been redundancies due to businesses closing, while restrictions on movement have meant that farmers can't bring their crops to market. The lowest paid and most vulnerable are suffering most.
In addition, schools are closed and there is a likelihood that many children will not return to the classroom.
Even if the Ebola outbreak was to be contained today, these long-term issues will pose enormous challenges for Sierra Leone over the coming months and years. Neighbouring countries, including Guinea and Liberia, face similar problems.
Trócaire will work with communities for long-term responses to these problems. Right now, however, the focus has to be on stopping the virus from taking any more lives.
There is a global panic about the possibility of Ebola crossing seas and continents with the same ease at which it crossed national borders. We must avoid knee-jerk reactions, however. The decision of Australia to suspend entry visas for people from Ebola-affected countries in West Africa will needlessly increase fear and stigma.
As the director of a local organisation said to me in Freetown: “Isolate the virus, but don't isolate Sierra Leone”.
By Faith Kasina
Pass by any tea kiosk or shopping outlet strewn along the roadsides, or a fleet of commuter bikes commonly known as bodaboda in South Sudan and you will notice one commonality: radio.
Whether housed in a mobile phone or public address system, radios are simply a way of life here and quite clearly a living need for people to stay informed.
“Most of us have no televisions,” says Asunta Akol, a resident from South Sudan’s Lakes State. “We have little access to newspapers or the internet so it is easier to get information from radios. They are basically our lifeline.”
Yet what citizens need to know most about - their rights and entitlements from their leaders, their country’s affairs and other important national issues, and how they can participate in the making of decisions affecting them –is still deafeningly off-air.
Years of political oppression have severely infringed on the citizen’s right to know, resulting in an innate fear not only to express opinions or needs but also a reluctance to seek vital information on their entitlements from those appointed through the ballot box. The fear is even more apparent in the current climate.
“Fear of being targeted means it is not easy for citizens, including some government officials, to talk openly about certain issues particularly on security or intercommunal conflict- the core issues here in Lakes State” says Luca Lueth, a Program Manager with Radio Good News, that airs a Trócaire-supported current affairs program.
“Last June we were closed down because of discussing those issues. This has limited our capacity on what we, as a broadcaster, can report. If we cannot report, the public will not know.”
Photo caption: Community briefing in Yambio, south Sudan. Photo credit: Caritas Internationalis
‘A voice of the people’
According to an audience survey by Internews, radio emerged as the second most important information source on critical matters such as the constitution and roles of government officials. Additionally, 37% of the population own a functional radio at home.
Despite this, many media outlets including newspapers and radio stations are often unfairly gagged, which locals like Asunta disagree with.
“I can listen to our leaders and interact with them through phone calls or text on radio,” she says. “Like now, I am able to follow what is going on in Addis Ababa (ongoing mediation talks to resolve the South Sudan’s current political crisis) so I feel part of the process.”
Three key media draft laws were recently (September 2014) passed by parliament, closing in the legal vacuum that journalists in South Sudan have been working in for years. Yet, local media professionals remain sceptical of change to their ever-souring relationship with the government.
“Authorities should see us as one of their arms, wanting to develop the same country. We are just the people’s voice,” says Luca.
Bridging the Gap
There are four main radio networks with broad coverage in South Sudan. Trócaire partners with one of these, the Catholic Radio Network (CRN) established in 2006, to air civic education programs touching on current affairs with clear messages on conflict resolution and peace-building, particularly after the December 2013 conflict.
In addition, Trócaire directly supports two radio stations- Radio Good News (Lakes State) and Voice of Hope (Western Bhar Al Ghazal State)in producing and airing weekly civic education programmes, to help people know and understand their basic rights and be able to better participate in governance processes.
The programmes are based on interviews from relevant experts on the topics being discussed. Listeners then get a chance to call in during the shows and contribute to the discussions.
“From our listeners, it is clear that people are more aware (of their rights) and are willing to express issues that they think government should be addressing,” Luca attests. “People want to talk about these issues and radio is the main outlet.”
Peter Mayor, one of the listeners, whilst contributing to a discussion on the state’s economy said “reducing taxes on everyday items as charcoal and vegetables or selling fruits or timber” can reduce people’s over-reliance on oil as a source of livelihood.
For Trócaire, a population that is aware of their rights is more capable of determining who governs them and how they are governed.
“People should be aware of their rights and entitlements so they know how they should be treated,” reiterates Niall O’Keeffe, Trócaire Governance and Human Rights Program Lead.
“It is a fundamental human right that people have a say in how they are governed and the radio provides an excellent forum for people to have these discussions.”
As one community member from Baggari area in South Sudan rightly put it, “If they (government) don’t come to us and understand our needs, there will be no solution” - radios could well be that first turn on the ignition!