The world is on the brink of a global pandemic, and it’s the poorest countries with the weakest health systems that will likely be hit the worst.
I was part of the Ebola response in West Africa. We learned important lessons during that crisis that can help us fight the spread of coronavirus here and overseas.
Lesson one: hand washing is our first line of defence against viruses such as Ebola and coronavirus. Once good hygiene measures were in place in hospitals, schools and other public places, we saw a drastic reduction in new Ebola cases.
But this is easier said than done in countries where clean water and antibacterial soap are often difficult for the average person to come by. That’s why it’s so important that aid agencies (such as Care Australia, where I now work) are improving water sources, providing soap and making sure everyone knows the best way to wash their hands.
Our second lesson: that health workers need to have the knowledge and the resources to stop viruses such as Ebola and coronavirus in their tracks. Underfunded and dysfunctional health systems cannot contain an epidemic.
In Liberia and Sierra Leone, two of the countries worst hit by Ebola, I worked alongside incredible local staff who were putting their lives at risk to save others. But these are two of the poorest countries in the world, ravaged by a history of colonisation and civil war.
Before international assistance arrived, local health workers simply didn’t have the resources or the training to cope. The late arrival of international assistance led to the tragic deaths of many health workers, weakening the health system at a time when it needed to be at its strongest.
One of the most important and lifesaving measures international responders put in place was to divide Ebola treatment centres into zones, with infected patients isolated in the high-risk zones. Proper zoning is a matter of life and death during epidemics, so it’s concerning to read reports of coronavirus hotspots where people are moving freely between red and green zones.
Our third lesson: we can’t just focus on the medical response. We humans aren’t just a collection of cells. We have emotions and opinions, and these play as important a role as biology when epidemics hit.
Building community trust is critical to the success of any public health program. During the Ebola outbreak, misinformation and rumours ran wild. So one of our most crucial tasks was to convince people suspected of having the virus that it was in everyone’s best interests that they be isolated and monitored. And then if they showed symptoms, we needed to convince them to come and receive care in the Ebola treatment centres. For this to work, people had to trust health workers.
This has been a particular challenge in the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where misinformation even led to people thinking health workers were deliberately infecting people with Ebola. Thankfully, that outbreak is now under control, with the final patient discharged earlier this week.
In West Africa, it was only once we started to truly engage with local people and get local leaders to help spread vital health information that the virus came under control. Trust takes time, so if we want to stem the spread of coronavirus in the world’s poorest countries, we need to start now.
Another part of building trust is understanding that patients aren’t just numbers, they’re human beings with families who love them. Ensuring relatives of Ebola patients could visit without risking infection was crucial to containing the virus. Equally, the visits were important for patients who were dealing with the psychological impacts of being infected and isolated. And when someone died, they had to be buried in a way that was both safe and culturally acceptable.
Finally, and most importantly: we need to act early and act together. Governments, UN agencies and aid groups need to coordinate a truly global response that will protect all people.
Australia has a practical imperative to help our neighbours because closing borders no longer works — the virus moves too fast and often without detection. But as a wealthy country, we also have a moral imperative to help. We can and we should be lending a hand to poorer countries.
Coronavirus is a global crisis that is going to require a global solution. The lessons from Ebola are there for us to use – but will we?
• Chris Withington works in the humanitarian and emergency response unit of Care Australia