Drawing lessons from the 2014 Ebola Outbreak
In a virtual event on Coronavirus and Conflict hosted by the United States Institute of Peace, Jeremy Konyndyk, Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development, talked about the importance of “building trust” during crisis response. He drew an example from the 2014 Ebola outbreak and the Liberian government’s response to the emergency:
Tension had been mounting in the region in early 2014 following the first signs of the outbreak, and by August 2014, there were 970 reported cases of Ebola in Liberia. Shortly afterwards, the President announced a 9 PM curfew in the capital city of Monrovia and completely sealed off West Point, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and home to almost 70,000 people. This led to riots in the neighborhood, with angry locals attacking security forces with stones and pieces of concrete, to which the security forces responded with gunfire.
What led to this escalation of conflict between West Point residents and Liberian security forces? According to an NPR correspondent who witnessed the riots, resentment and mistrust had been brewing for a while. One of the most recent grievances was that the Liberian government had opened a holding facility for people with symptoms of Ebola directly in the heart of the neighborhood. People were upset because the government had not explained what the purpose of this facility was, and the common perception was that it was merely a dumping ground for people with Ebola – that they were being left there to die. Hence when the neighborhood was placed under quarantine, the underlying message they received was that they had a deadly and contagious disease running through their neighborhood and couldn’t leave.
The Importance of Trust During a Global Pandemic
Fast forward to April, 2020: India – the second most populous country in the world – is in a fragile position, with many medical experts claiming that the country has already entered stage 3 of coronavirus transmission, during which time contact-tracing is virtually impossible. India was under a 21-day lockdown that was due to end on April 14, but that has since been extended to May 3. The Government of Punjab was among the first state governments to extend the lockdown until the end of April, since the state reported a total of 151 confirmed coronavirus cases, including 11 deaths. In the Indian state of Punjab earlier this week, a policeman’s hand was chopped off with a sword and six other officers were severely injured while enforcing coronavirus lockdown measures in northern Punjab. The attack took place when the policemen tried to stop a vehicle carrying seven armed men at a barricade outside a vegetable market and asked them for curfew passes. The men in the vehicle were reportedly enraged at being asked to produce passes when they were going to buy vegetables and subsequently attacked the police.
This is one of several reported incidents of violence across the country since the lockdown went into effect. The central government has been criticized for releasing unclear and inadequate information regarding the lockdown and the ways to access basic amenities like food and transportation. Such circumstances have led to widespread confusion and panic, especially among low-income migrant workers who are currently out of work, have little or no access to food, and have no means of returning home. Even in larger cities, security forces have resorted to coercive measures such as beating and arresting pedestrians, and enforcing fines that violators cannot afford to pay. Importantly, the incident in Punjab is one of the rare instances where security forces themselves have been the victims of violence.
Building Trust in Trying Times
Trust is a crucial variable in crisis response and management. Stopping a global pandemic requires a drastic change in the behavior and mindsets of people, a change that can be achieved through trust-building, empathy, and effective communication. The several reported incidents of violence during this global crisis reveal that coercive and punitive methods adopted by governments and their security forces run the risk of undermining trust rather than building cooperation. In some cases there may already be a trust deficit between governments and their peoples, in which case additional efforts must be made to mitigate the spread of rumors and misinformation. Below are some best practices in communication during crisis response:
- Anticipate crises: State actors may realize that some situations are preventable simply by modifying existing methods of operation
- Identify a Crisis Communications Team: This team should be pre-screened and trained, and backed up by spokespersons for different channels of communication
- Understand your audience: the ability to segment audiences properly and tailor the approach and messages directed towards them is crucial for successful crisis communication
- Enable two-way communication: In a national emergency, the people should also be allowed to raise concerns and ask questions to crisis responders
- Pay special attention to non-wired audiences: The use of low-tech communication channels such as radio, mobile phones, and newspapers are extremely important in reaching remote audiences
- Provide accurate and consistent messaging: Giving wrong or inconsistent information to audiences causes the spread of misinformation and increases the trust deficit
- Monitor communication and people’s behaviors and react in a timely manner: Crisis responders should be able to detect uncertainty and fear among target audiences and take necessary steps to mitigate their anxiety
- Perform a post-crisis analysis: Once the crisis is over, the communications team needs to carry out an evaluation of its efforts, including an assessment of their strengths, weaknesses, and how they can be better prepared for future crises
This is a non-exhaustive list that must be adapted to the magnitude of the crisis at hand. The coronavirus is an unprecedented public health dilemma, and with so little known about the nature and effects of the virus, effective communication and trust-building surrounding the issue becomes a highly daunting task. However, by addressing the fears and concerns of the people with empathy and understanding, state actors can go a long way in bringing about the shift in attitudes and behaviors essential for controlling the spread of the virus.
This article was written by HasNa President Rukmini Banerjee