Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


Faith-Based Organizations Responding to Ebola


Anne Peterson

01-12-2015


By Anne Peterson

January 12, 2015

 

In October, I visited Liberia and Sierra Leone to conduct an assessment for World Vision of the faith-based response to the Ebola outbreak. My task was to determine what faith-based organizations were doing, what they and their communities could be doing, and how they could be better integrated with the US government Ebola response. 

The spread of Ebola has drastically changed everyday life for those living in Liberia and Sierra Leone. People do not shake hands or touch in greeting. As I stood in a church in Liberia, surrounded by children, I had difficulty resisting the urge to hold the children or touch their hands in greeting. Businesses are closed, school is not in session, and half of children are kept at home without school or social outlet. The usual gregarious and joyful African spirit I had experienced here in the past was not gone, but it was dampened by the ever present specter of Ebola.

Although it is difficult to determine exact  numbers, the World Health Organization estimated at the end of October that, because of Ebola, there were already over 4,500 children who are double orphans (both parents dead) and 10,395 single orphans (one parent dead). The real number of single and double orphans could have then been as high as 25,000 and is surely higher now.

Children suspected of coming into contact with Ebola-stricken people will likely find themselves abandoned by family, friends, and their community, even if they show no symptoms of the disease. These children may or may not receive food and water or any adult care while in quarantine or after. Additionally, when a sick person or a body is picked up, the house must be decontaminated, which can destroy household belongings and lead to further impoverishment and stigmatizing of those who have just been through the Ebola ordeal.

The local church, as in past epidemics like AIDS, has been mixed in its response. I witnessed examples of churches being helpful, and others that need improvement if they are going to help control the spread of infection and discourage the related stigma. Most churches have stopped the practice of “laying on of hands” and many churches now have chlorine and hand-washing stations set up before people enter the church, and people are spaced apart in the pews to avoid transmission. Some churches were beginning to go out from their church buildings, conducting services right outside the doors of Ebola treatment units so patients can hear that others are praying for them.

I observed more rigorous anti-infection controls generally practiced in Liberia, but saw less coordination among the faith community. The reverse was true in Sierra Leone, where I observed fewer community-level infection control practices but witnessed more action and greater coordination among the faith community. The Inter-Religious Council led by the United Methodist Church, which was instrumental in bringing peace during the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, is reactivating to fight Ebola.

As the epidemic has spread, the reality of Ebola has become starkly clear and the desire for reliable information has grown. Many churches do not have training on Ebola for faith leaders, but some have welcomed scientists from the CDC to their services to learn about Ebola.  

World Vision is leading a consortium, working with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the Muslim organization Focus 1000, on the production of a toolkit on Ebola messaging to be disseminated through the leaders of each faith group. World Vision is then combining these messages with the scientific training on Ebola into a faith-oriented toolkit providing a reflective and action-oriented training for a wide array of faith leaders through its Channels of Hope program.

World Vision is also assuming unusual leadership roles by leading coalitions of faith groups in Sierra Leone to take on a variety of issues, such as encouraging dignified (not just safe) burials, training pastors and imams, and addressing indirect consequences of Ebola, including food insecurity, threatened livelihoods, care of orphans and survivors, and education of children while they are out of school.

Addressing burial practices is particularly key. Nearly 70 percent of Ebola transmission currently may be linked to funerals. Another World Vision coalition, with Catholics and Muslims, has taken on managing, training, and paying burial teams in twelve of the fourteen districts. As burials become “dignified” and faithful to spiritual traditions, the hope is that families will no longer continue conducting the high-risk secret burials of Ebola victims.

Faith leaders are trusted in their communities, and correct information in their hands can overcome widespread mistrust of the government and encourage people to respond more appropriately to Ebola, enhancing positive messages: you can protect your families by reporting suspected Ebola cases as early as possible. Faith leaders can affirm that God does not abandon people but works through His church to care for the burgeoning needs of the sick, widows, and orphans. For Christians, the reminder of Jesus’s care for the lepers and outcasts can be particularly helpful in reducing stigma faced by survivors. FBOs play a unique role in consolidating the science of Ebola with the cultural and faith issues so that faith leaders and communities can become an active part of the Ebola solution and not just victims of a devastating epidemic.

 

A version of this article also appears on the website of Christian Connections for International Health.

 

- Dr. E Anne Peterson is Board Vice President of Christian Connections for International Health. She is the Vice Dean of the Public Health program at the Ponce School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Puerto Rico, and a research professor at George Washington University.

 



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