Thanks to Nigeria Health Watch for tweeting the link to this excellent opinion piece in The Guardian: The truth about Ebola: battle starts with accurate information. Excerpt:
Today, religion still holds great power in shaping crisis narratives. In response to the news that a Liberian man had brought the Ebola virus to Nigeria, a Pentecostal preacher took to Facebook to post a message claiming that “at the Name of Jesus, Ebola will bow out!”
The post drew loud condemnation, causing the preacher to add a clarification, insisting that he was “not in anyway an attempting to deny the existence of the virus in Nigeria, or to encourage anyone to seek interaction with the virus.”
But there was also strong support as well, for his views. One commenter posted: “God is not man, believe Him, He will defend His words.” Since then I’ve sighted at least one similar message circulating on mobile phones, saying that “Jesus brings life, Ebola brings death. Choose life!!! "
In Liberia, where more than 300 people have been infected in the Ebola outbreak, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf this week called for a three-day stint of fasting and prayer to ask for divine intervention against the disease.
The implications are obvious. If Ebola victims choose to believe that the solution to Ebola actually lies in churches, mosques or with traditional healers (which, in the absence of a medical cure, is not such a farfetched scenario), they will flock to these places in search of healing, dramatically raising the chances of an outbreak of a real epidemic.
In the earlier stages of the outbreak, confusion about the origins of the disease combined with distrust of Western medical intervention to trigger anger and mass protests in Sierra Leone. Some relatives of victims kidnapped their loved ones from hospital, apparently in an attempt to offer them better treatment at home from traditional healers.
Governments clearly have a role to play in decisively countering observed and impending misinformation with correct and timely information. Which would explain why the Lagos state government has since visited the headquarters of at least two prominent Pentecostal churches, to dissuade them from actions or teachings that might undermine efforts to check the spread of the virus.
Generally, the way a government manages information in a crisis is a proxy for its capacity to manage the crisis proper. It doesn’t take long for public perception to boil down to a single question: how does one expect a government that can’t properly manage a symptom (the flow of information) to convincingly manage the underlying condition (be it rampaging terrorists or a viral hemorrhagic condition like Ebola)?
So far the Lagos state and federal governments have held regular press briefings, and launched a telephone helpline, and Twitter and Facebook pages – all of these are much welcome, as is the assurance by the state government to cooperate with the federal government.
If the discrepancy over victim numbers is put aside, the unusual urgency, honesty and transparency demonstrated thus far in managing information has been impressive, but will need to be kept up in the weeks and months ahead, as the temptation to succumb to a habitual official tardiness or tightlipped-ness mounts.