Ebola two years on: The faith leaders fighting the virus in Sierra Leone

In December 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the global Ebola outbreak was finally over. Sadly, the moment was short-lived: within hours of the announcement, a new case was confirmed in Sierra Leone.

The same thing happened just last week: on the very same day that the WHO gave Sierra Leone the all-clear for a second time, its neighbour Guinea reported two new cases of the virus.

Clearly, there should be no room for complacency: we should expect, and prepare for, more flare-ups in future. This reminder comes as the international community marks the second anniversary of the start of the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history.

The outbreak (which began two years ago on March 22, 2014) went on to claim the lives of more than 11,300 people — mostly in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Although the crisis has passed its peak, its effects are still keenly felt by communities in these west African countries.

Many challenges still remain for those who survived the virus. Social stigma, financial difficulties, secondary medical issues and trauma continue to plague those who lived through this ordeal.

As one Sierra Leonean faith leader, Father Peter Conteh, points out in a new film Ebola in Sierra Leone: the role of faith leaders: ‘Ebola is finished but not over.’

Looking back over the last two years, much has been lost, but many lessons have also been learned — some, the hard way. One key lesson is the need to recognise the vital role played by local communities, civil society groups and faith leaders in the emergency response and recovery efforts.

Trailer for Christian Aid’s new film ‘Ebola in Sierra Leone: the role of faith leaders’

Soon after Ebola reached Sierra Leone, it became very clear that major factors in transmission included denial, fear, lack of understanding and deeply embedded local customs, such as the burial rites that involve touching corpses that are highly contagious.

Religious and deeply ingrained traditional cultural beliefs permeate the very fabric of our society. In a country with a weak healthcare infrastructure (it had just two doctors and 17 nurses per 100,000 people before the outbreak), reliance on traditional healers remains strong in many quarters.

While many overseas agencies focused predominantly on clinical work in the outbreak’s early days, for home-grown NGOs and civil society organisations, it was painfully apparent that the biggest battle was behavioural, social and cultural. We knew the response had to be supported in a way that made it locally owned and locally driven.

That’s why Christian Aid worked with local partner organisations here in Sierra Leone — whether it was equipping health teams, feeding quarantined families, caring for orphans or mobilising thousands of volunteers to give life-saving advice on infection prevention and control.

Our partners shared a common characteristic: they all had longstanding positions of influence and trust in the places where they worked. This was particularly the case when it came to our faith-based partners.

Sierra Leone is a deeply religious nation, roughly two thirds Muslim and one third Christian. Churches and mosques are rooted in and respected by communities, giving faith leaders a unique platform to create social and behaviour change: they understand local contexts and can empathise accordingly.

One leader who we worked with, the Rev Christiana Sutton-Koroma, Director of the Council of Churches in Sierra Leone, said: ‘In every town you enter in Sierra Leone, you find a mosque or a church: they have a presence everywhere. Religious leaders have a great constituency.’

And we saw their faith in action when we trained 1,000 religious leaders to promote safe practices, challenge Ebola myths and misinformation, speak out against stigmatisation of survivors, and provide psychosocial care to trauma-hit people.

Faith leaders and grassroots groups have proved themselves crucial to the fight against Ebola. When faced with humanitarian crises, the international community must harness their potential as agents of sustainable change.

Two years on from the start of the Ebola crisis, a new film, produced by Christian Aid, explores the role of faith leaders during the outbreak in Sierra Leone. It highlights how these leaders worked to replace messages of fear with hope, and to promote changes in behaviour and ingrained cultural practices that were slowing the fight against the virus.

As we mark today’s anniversary, let’s take this opportunity to thank the women and men who have played a role in recovery efforts over the past two years, and who will continue to do so in the weeks and months to come.

Written by Jeanne Kamara, Christian Aid’s country manager in Sierra Leone.

Christian Aid will also be highlighting the vital contribution of faith leaders in disasters at the World Humanitarian Summit in May.

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