Earlier this month, Professor of Politics Amy Patterson visited Liberia to conduct research on community responses to the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak. Her visit was facilitated by the Rev. Terry Quoi, T'17, from St. Barnabas Church, Liberia. Quoi, his family, and leaders in the Episcopal Church of Liberia hosted Patterson. In addition to conducting research, Patterson visited with officials at Cuddington University, one of Africa’s oldest universities, established by Episcopal missionaries in 1899.
Patterson interviewed Ebola survivors, community health workers, hospital officials, Episcopal Church leaders, policymakers, and representatives of international nongovernmental organizations. Some interview subjects told heartbreaking stories, while others shared inspirational tales of long hours and tireless work during the outbreak. One highlight was meeting Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to be elected president of an African country. President Sirleaf thanked the citizens of the U.S. for their long-standing partnership with Liberia and their assistance during the Ebola crisis.
A crucial finding from Patterson’s research was the role that traditional practices and community mobilizing played in stopping the outbreak. Community leaders who knew about the wellbeing of their followers could facilitate contact tracing and disease surveillance. Traditional chiefs who knew their villagers could control migrants, some of whom might potentially bring the virus to a village. Young men in one hard-hit town formed a task force to identify potential cases for quarantine and transport to the Ebola treatment units.
Religious institutions also played a crucial role, using their already established structures such as youth groups and women’s associations to distribute food to quarantined communities. Imams and pastors preached messages early in the outbreak about handwashing and Ebola prevention. Pastors, priests, and imams provided counseling to victims and their families, often at great danger to themselves. Parishioners drove ambulances and did contact tracing. As one government official explained, “It was a total country effort. We had no choice if we were to save the nation.”
Even though the Ebola crisis is long over, its effects remain. Ebola survivors face health challenges, unemployment, and stigma. For example, one man inadvertently brought the virus to his village; a dozen people died but the man survived, leading to community resentment. Counselors and religious leaders play a role in healing such wounds. Many Ebola orphans do not attend school and suffer great psychological trauma. Some churches and NGOs are working with these children, but the need is great.
Patterson’s research will be included in the book Africa and Global Health Governance, forthcoming from Johns Hopkins Press.