Monrovia Mayor led life and death battle against Ebola

Liberian women played central role in struggle against the virus

It is just over a year since a devastating Ebola outbreak struck in West African countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Ivory Coast. The Journalist reported on its tragic impact and the dedicated efforts to battle the dreaded virus. The region is all but Ebola free now and this week we look at the heroic role of women in this achievement.

MONROVIA – When Paynesville Mayor Cyvette Gibson wanted to get the streets cleaned in the part of the Liberian capital that she runs, she enlisted the help of everybody she could find. Even the homeless and drug addicts helped to pick up litter. And when Ebola struck Liberia in 2014 Gibson was well placed to wield those same skills in community building to fight back against the disease.

At the height of the epidemic, she deployed more than 300 block leaders around 30 community builders in the Redlight district of Paynseville, a commercial district, to educate the population of 400,000, police their behaviour and trace potential Ebola victims before they could spread the disease.

Street cleaning was important to Paynesville, but fighting Ebola was a matter of life and death and Gibson won. Her efforts backed by the U.N. Children’s Fund (Unicef) succeeded in reducing the number of Ebola cases in the neighbourhood to zero.

International health charities such as Medicins Sans Frontieres have taken deserved credit for the role they played in the fight against the worst outbreak of Ebola in human history.

But the role played by women and women’s groups has been undervalued. That matters because few actors in society can mobilize communities as effectively as women — as the example of Gibson shows.

In future health emergencies, women will and must again play a leading role, armed by their deep community ties and their ethic of team building.

In the short term, that effectiveness will be on display as Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia recover from an epidemic that killed more than 12 300 people but has dwindled almost to zero.

For example, Gibson and friends have lobbied companies in the United Kingdom and United States to provide health clinics with medical supplies for purposes other than treating Ebola.

“All of our survivors have been able to go back to their homes and have been received by the community and residents because of the awareness that was done in the community,” said Gibson, who runs the group Liberians Against Ebola. “Information is power.”

Bloated Civil Service

At the height of the Ebola crisis, African governments were able to mobilize their entire societies towards the single goal of defeating the epidemic: churches and mosques, businesses, schools and community groups all played their part.

Normally, however, things are much harder. That will make recovery from Ebola more difficult in Liberia where many families have lost breadwinners to the disease and up to 60 percent of people employed before the virus struck are now out of work.

Gabriel Fernandez, national social protection coordinator at the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social protection, said that a bloated civil service and the hiring of non-essential workers, has worsened the problem.

Rather than institute systems to help Liberians support their families the public service is being used as poverty alleviation, he said.

“This (Ebola) is an opportunity to re-evaluate our social contracts and implement them. It’s a wake-up call to address issues that have been neglected,” Fernandez said.

Liberia’s budget should include provision for pensioners, school feeding and health care for those in the informal sector such as coconut sellers, motorbike taxi drivers and women traders, he said.

Some 4000 children were orphaned in Liberia by Ebola. The government, Unicef and the World Bank will provide foster grants for the children. The new focus should be on municipal development, urban planning and better services in communities, sanitation, water systems and education, he said.

Ebola Clinic to Health Centre

Nowhere is the impact of women’s intervention felt more than in rural areas.

A two-hour drive from Monrovia, past the rubber rich forest in Harbel, is Buchanan, the capital of Liberia’s Grand Bassa county.

In the thick of the crisis Martha Karnga, head of the Bassa Women Development Association, went from district to district disseminating information.

“People were not working, food was scarce, mistrust was high,” Karnga said, sitting on her front porch across from a hand-washing station for people to use before they enter her house.

“I didn’t [realise] we had a culture of shaking hands, it’s so much part of us. It left an emptiness in us, that bond that was there is gone, but we’re trying to bring it back,” she said.

They won the battle, but for Karnga and her colleagues the skills they acquired could serve in the wider task of helping the community long term.

During Ebola, she led workshops, spoke to pastors and imams and crafted messages with the most impact. She also brought in other women’s groups to spread the message of public health.

As the virus spread and people retreated to their homes afraid and wary, the Bassa Women even created a radio programme for Ebola survivors, friends and family to share their experiences, educate and reduce the stigma.

“People did not believe. People felt that they had not seen Ebola so they had doubts, and so carelessly people were still burying their dead. Even people who treated sick people were denying that the people they treated were sick.”

Buchanan has just one government hospital that is under-resourced and understaffed. Now Karnga wants its Ebola Treatment Unit to become a permanent part of the hospital for future emergencies or for primary health care.

Such a move would cement gains made through Ebola, a virus that took so much, but has left Liberian women as indefatigable a force as ever.

This article is published as part of a collaboration between The Journalist, the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) in Ghana and FEMRITE in Uganda.

Photos by Francis Kokoroko