As the world adjusts to the new normal in the era of the Coronavirus and COVID-19 that includes social distancing and a six feet apart spacing, civil society is being thrust more than ever before onto the forefront of keeping humanity connected and informed. The world shouldn’t be surprised that community-based organizations are on the frontlines of helping us through the COVID-19 pandemic. During the Ebola outbreak in parts of West Africa in 2014, NDI saw up close how a vibrant civil society was critical in enhancing transparency, building trust, and ultimately, stemming the tide of the virus’ spread
Between 2014-2016, there were more Ebola-related cases and deaths in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone than from any previous outbreak of the Ebola virus combined. The scale and lethality of the disease made this an immense global public health challenge, especially as it spread across national borders, threatening to affect other countries in Africa and the world.
In an open letter on what the world can learn from her country’s experience dealing with the Ebola outbreak, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wrote
“Fear drove people to run, to hide, to hoard to protect their own when the only solution is and remains based in the community … But we self-corrected, and we did it together.”
It was in this spirit that NDI provided support to its civil society and media partners in Liberia, including the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (the WASH network), Natural Resource Management (NRM), South East Women's Development Association (SEWODA) and the Liberia Media and Development Initiative (LMDI), to take advantage of their strong community roots and a network of community radio stations.
The WASH network brought together local leaders to brainstorm ways their communities could remain safe and resilient in response to the Ebola epidemic in Liberia.
Their highly valued contribution to the national response to the Ebola outbreak demonstrated the importance of a dynamic civil society to an effective government response to pandemics. Community organizations were frequently better able to reach exposed populations quickly and in ways that factored in the specific sensitivities of each community and its inhabitants. In Liberia, for example, civil society and government were able to work together to coordinate messaging and ensure critical information reached diverse segments of Liberian society. NDI media partner, LMDI, used its network of community radio stations to share such critical information about the virus and how to prevent its spread or access important resources for treatment. It provided a space for lawmakers to communicate to the public steps being taken by the government to protect and save lives. NDI’s advocacy partners worked with communities to identify their needs, informed legislators on the health situation in their districts, and provided these legislators with expertise on how to best respond.
In the countries affected by the Ebola crisis at the time, as tends to be the case in transitional societies or nascent democracies, civil society, and traditional and religious leaders, are often more trusted than state authorities. In Liberia, civil society was able to conduct quick research and share information about how to curb the spread of Ebola with communities that did not trust and consequently did not follow, information and preventive guidance from the government.
The important role civil society played during the Ebola outbreak should be instructive for governments looking to respond to today’s pandemic. At a time when transparent and honest communication is of the utmost importance to keep all people safe and healthy, political leaders must draw on civil society to build trust and secure the citizen engagement that is now needed more than ever.