You can’t ambush Ebola with a bullet

by Outreach ~ November 4th, 2014. Filed under: News.
Since the Ebola outbreak, the major question has been how to stop the spread of the disease from causing any more havoc than it already has. Ravaged by civil war, tensions between ethnic, religious and tribal groups has blighted the international community’s efforts to contain the most deadly outbreak of the disease in human history. However, what has been ignored in all of this has been the work of peacebuilding in solving these conflicts and hence helping to solve the current Ebola crisis.

As the international community struggles to arrest the spread of the disease, the old ethno-political tensions that tore these countries apart threaten to do so again. At the turn of the century, the chronic civil wars across the border in Liberia and Sierra Leone led to refugees, rebels and further bloodshed to flood across the border into Guinea. Whilst there have been times of peace, civil war seems ready to return at any moment and internecine violence is still common throughout these countries.

Containing Ebola requires educating locals on how they can avoid the disease and reduce the chances of infection. This is a problem when large parts of the population are saying Ebola doesn’t exist and another part say it’s a conspiracy by the French government and mining companies. These conspiracy theories are so damaging that Médecins Sans Frontières medical staff were attacked by a mob in Guinea who blamed them for spreading the disease.

Peacebuilders in Liberia have already shown how they can help fight the disease and tackle misinformation. But if peacebuilding efforts had been properly funded and supported decades ago, these countries would be decades ahead of where they are now in their ability to deal with the outbreak. Medical treatment centres, hospitals, healthcare professionals, roads and a telecoms infrastructure that would have allowed quick and easy dissemination of information to stop the spread of the disease would have been in place. Instead, the international community is now having to play catch up by sending thousands of troops to try and stem the crisis.

Just one example of peacebuilders being effective at tackling Ebola are Liberia’s Pen-Pen drivers. They are motorcycle taxi drivers who are often former combatants who now educate locals on Ebola through loudspeakers and handing out thousands of factsheets. The public awareness campaign appears to be working. Not only are they disseminating accurate information about Ebola, they have set up hand-washing and sanitation stations and also reduce the risk of civil unrest against aid workers like those from Médecins Sans Frontières. The efforts of the Pen-Pen drivers is to be applauded. But they are stepping in to fix the international community’s lack of peacebuilding efforts in the country over the last few decades.

The damage done by the civil war is encapsulated in the story of former child soldier turned peacebuilder B. Abel Learwellie. Learwellie wanted to be a doctor as a child but had his life changed forever when he was captured and forced by a militia to fight for them. Many other would be doctors, nurses and healthcare workers have had their lives arrested and their potential careers destroyed by civil war. These are healthcare professionals now badly needed and which the international community is having to fill the gap. Had those thousands of healthcare workers been able to complete their training, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone would have had the manpower to contain the crisis. As Learwellie says “You can’t ambush Ebola with any physical bullet”.

The day will come when we will have to realise that prevention is better than cure. When we realise that building nations up via international aid and spending more on peacebuilding activities will, in the long term, not just save us money, but also save countless lives. Finding a more permanent solution to the problem of Ebola will be a result of supporting peacebuilders who will be able to build a more prosperous, stable and educated populace. A start would be funding peacebuilding projects through the UK Conflict Pool – a government mechanism put in place to prevent conflicts from flaring up again through non-violent means.

If we fail to do this, the next outbreak could be far worse than the one West Africans are having to suffer right now. Ebola does not respect national boundaries and it may not be confined to West Africa next time.


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