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Home > COVID-19 > Ebola

Lessons from Ebola

COVID-19 is dire – but failing to learn from HIV, AIDS and Ebola will make COVID-19 much worse.

Ian Campbell recounts his observations of the response to Ebola – how it began, how it ended up, and why. See text below, and see video message [18 min] by Ian and Alison Campbell which they prepared for the Salvation Army in New York.

During the 2014 outbreak of Ebola I watched two contrasting responses. One was technical, and the other from community.

The technical response involved laboratories, clinics and the importation of heath workers to hotspots to intervene. Initially there was little counselling support or public information campaigns. The spread of the disease accelerated – alarmingly so.

The community response was focused on the neighbourhood. Other local action movements were more widespread and were linked with special interests. They included, for example, people living with HIV across the country. More on this soon.

Part of the community response was the response by local faith groups. They were muted at first then emerged gradually during early 2015. Religious leaders showed the way by changing their funeral practices and worshiping without contact.

Common to all the responses was the darkness of expectation. Whether the national-level people in government or the World Health Organisation, or local families in their homes, everyone had the same sense of not knowing when the light would come. They had to keep going.

Gradually two interlinked journeys evolved. Maybe three.

First, local neighbourhood communities initiated their own response, based in what they had learned bit-by-bit. They walled off their villages, neighbourhoods or families. Aside from some anger and violence directed at national and WHO visitors in a few places, they stood fast. They learned how to connect with their relatives and friends in other communities, where something similar would happen.

Secondly, the technical response gathered momentum. Internationally WHO recognised that it had not listened to local communities from the beginning. By early 2015 WHO tried to change.

Thirdly, the religious response gathered courage. Congregations reassembled and reached out in service, with many finding ways to talk and visit. Rather than unncesssarily staying behind closed doors they engaged inter-personally with their local communities from the safe distance of three feet. They listened with care.

The ripple of local response happened before the technical interventions and the institutional religious responses had become established. For example, stories of community response were heard from late 2014, and the labs were not at all ready by then – they came later. Funerals were still hotbeds for infection until early 2015, but many local communities had worked out how to avoid transmission at funerals before then.

The numbers of infections began to diminish. Fewer people were becoming infected. The curve was trending downwards. Why? Because local neighbourhood showed the way. SALT practice (see how we work) emerged in Freetown by late 2014, and that is one documented example.

I met many of the local leaders who emerged. Many were present in their local family and neighbourhood settings, and motivated to care, because of their faith. Research into their motivations would be beneficial.

COVID-19, unlike Ebola, is global. It's less deadly but much more infectious. Many European and Australian cities do not yet feel the pain. The darkness of the experiences of Wuhan and northern Italy recalls those of Ebola in West Africa in 2014-15 and HIV in Zambia in 1987-95. Other locations will soon be immersed in a search for relief and a way out of increasing numbers of deaths of people known or connected to us.

In time the light will come, but it will depend on the synergy of local neighbourhood relationship and technical efforts by caring people.

Great and selfless things will be done by many people, and this will all count for the good. My own observation – and I have studied this expressly for decades – goes further. It is that local people will draw deeply on a raw faith in God who came in the person Jesus, who passed through a magnified dark separation, sufficient for times like these.

Neighbourhood responses must spread faster than the virus.

24 March 2020

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