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Combating Covid: 8 lessons from the Ebola outbreak

30 March 2020

As we try to get Covid-19 under control, we can learn from how ebola outbreaks have been successfully tackled in Africa.

Salumo Suli (58) in DR Congo washes his hands to prevent the spread of ebola. Photo : Garry Walsh / Trócaire

People in Ireland are experiencing something they have never experienced before. The Coronavirus has changed our lives. People are fearful and trying to adjust to a new reality of staying away from friends and family.

For some countries in Africa, this virus is bringing back traumatic memories of the Ebola outbreak. The social distancing measures we are trying to get used to were part of daily life for several years.

Trócaire’s programmes saved many lives during the Ebola outbreak. In the weeks and months ahead, we will be protecting some of the world’s poorest people from the Coronavirus.

Here are eight things the Ebola outbreak taught us.

1. This isn’t just medical

When Ebola struck, many thought it needed a purely medical response. In fact, the social response was vital for reducing transmissions. We need to teach people how to protect themselves. Hand washing, keeping apart, stopping physical contact. This is how viruses are defeated. Trócaire works in communities that are remote and cut-off from central governments. We will play a key role in bringing these messages to them.

2. Elders and Church leaders have an important role to play

Governments and international organisations are not always trusted. When Ebola struck, rumours spread that governments and international aid agencies were to blame. In some cases, medics were attacked. That is why engaging with community elders and Church leaders is so important. They have the trust of the people. Failing to engage them has very serious consequences – if they are not informed of the facts, they can spread the wrong information.

3. People in self-isolation need support

People will be quarantined or asked to self-isolate. That is difficult enough in Ireland, where people have government income support. But in many countries, self-isolation means no income and no food. Trócaire will play an important role in supporting them. During the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, we provided weekly quarantine packs. These included food, solar chargers, radios and batteries. These are a lifeline and allow people to stay in self-isolation.

4. Other illnesses still exist

During the Ebola outbreak, many people died from treatable illnesses because the health services were overwhelmed. Many did not want to attend a clinic for fear of contracting ebola. This is likely to be the case again. People with underlying illnesses such as HIV will still need care. In places like Somalia, Trócaire’s health centres treat thousands of people each day. This work will have to continue.

Top: In Sierra Leone, Caritas Freetown is teaching people how to prevent the spread of Ebola. Photo: Caritas Internationalis. Bottom: In Guinea, Caritas is distributing hygiene materials and teaching people about Ebola prevention. Photo: OCPH/Caritas Guinea

5. Information, information, information

One of the biggest challenges during Ebola was the management of information. People need to know what the current situation is and how do get help. We established information kiosks. These kiosks were places where people could go to get the information they needed. That was crucial.

6. Stigma leads to conflict

People who have the illness can be stigmatised. Many were blamed for bringing the virus into communities. Information and knowledge is key to battling this. Communities and individuals need support during and after the crisis to reduce stigma, tension and conflict.

7. Support local organisations

Many countries have closed their borders. International organisations won’t be able to get in. Many international staff have already left to look after loved ones in their own homes. Local organisations will lead the fight against the Coronavirus. Our role as an Irish agency is to support them.

8. This will end

When you’re in the middle of a crisis, it can be hard to see a way out. How will this ever end? It’s important to always remember: this will end. Sierra Leone is ebola-free. The last Ebola patient in DR Congo was recently released from care. Ebola was defeated, and so too will be the Coronavirus. This will end.

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0800 912 1200 (Northern Ireland).

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