By Abdul Samba Brima | If anything, one lesson I took away from the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone is the power of radio to battle public health disaster. An estimated 11 thousand people died across Sierra Leone Guinea and Liberia during the health crisis that ravaged West Africa. By the time Sierra Leone was declared free of Ebola, a total of 3, 589 people had died from 8,704 confirmed cases in the country.

Like the coronavirus pandemic, part of the problem at the time was that people did not know which information to act on. At the start of Ebola, government information on national radio was that the virus had no cure. But, people were also asked to go to hospital for treatment. This conflicting information left many suspicious and doubtful of the government’s ability to deal with the disease. Indeed, most who were taken to health centers never returned home alive. Up to this day, some families have no idea where their loved ones were buried.

For community people, going to hospitals at the time translated into a death sentence. Some even suspected the government of conspiring to kill people for money. It was a hopeless situation and people decided to take fight into their own hands. By the time citizens realized severity of the crisis, many lives had been lost and communities retreated into fear. In some rural areas, whole villages were abandoned. People ran into bushes and preferred to die close to their families. It felt like the country was at war. Indeed, a fight against an invisible enemy.

It was during this perilous time that we developed radio programmes to respond to the crisis as community transmission of the virus threatened to plunge the country into extinction. At the time, I was working for BBC Media Action as one of the national radio presenters. By the time our programmes started going out, one thing was very clear in our minds; people were overwhelmed and they mostly acted on the wrong information. Like the coronavirus, rumors, fake news, and misinformation swirled during Ebola. As fear engulfed communities, so did fake news and rumors circulate through social media platforms. Some touted fake cures like bathing in salt water, drinking “bitter Kola” to protect them from the outbreak. It was the perfect timing for a coordinated media response that produced trusted, clear and timely information aimed at changing attitudes and behaviors at grassroots levels.

Our programmes, Kick Ebola Nar Salone”, which means kick Ebola out of Sierra Leone, was a 30-minute weekly programme that spoke to different aspects of the virus. The other, Kick Ebola Live, was a two-hour weekly show that was transmitted live through all radio stations across the country. These programmes were also rebroadcast by over 40 community radio stations across rural Sierra Leone. They were both produced in local languages with the sole aim of targeting behaviour change at grassroots. A survey conducted by BBC Media Action did indicate that 15% of rural audiences in Sierra Leone had no understanding of Krio, the country’s lingua franca, and English. This therefore made our broadcast through local dialects indispensable as we spoke to the needs of communities in languages that they understood.

Another uniqueness of the programmes was that we featured local leaders from communities to make pledges to fight the virus on behalf of their communities. These pledges were followed up and in some areas, leaders instituted bye-laws that forced their people to report strangers and sick people. Families who defaulted were fined hefty sums. This helped to reduce fear and community transmission of the virus. Our programmes helped people to feel connected to the national conversation, voices of their local leaders made them become inspired, instituted trust and confidence in the health system. This helped to build fluid communication; a two-way approach that gave rural dwellers a chance to provide useful feedback to policy makers. In no time, our programmes helped to raise awareness about the health crisis and people started changing attitudes and gave unreserved support.

Through these programmes, the power of radio, in particular community radios, were fully unleashed and they proved decisive in the Ebola fight. Local leaders spoke to authorities about challenges at community levels, survivors shared their experiences, experts provided live saving information, and also helped to burst myths and dispel rumors about the virus. Through these, we provoked and promoted an all-round national response to the crisis; from policy makers to health experts and from community leaders to their local subjects. It was a very time sensitive radio strategy that complemented national efforts and helped to save lives.  

In a largely traditional society like Sierra Leone, people largely rely on culture and tradition to solve their health needs. Our programmes helped to cut through some of these age old traditions like caring for the sick and tending to the dead before burial. A BBC Media Action research showed that radio stations felt to have helped listeners in different ways during the outbreak to change attitudes and adopt a positive approach to fight the crisis.

At a time like this when health systems are overwhelmed with the unprecedented coronavirus, lessons from Ebola show that acting on the right information can mean the difference between life and death. For example, in Nigeria, like Sierra Leone, profound level of fear coupled with misinformation and ‘fake news’ on social media have left many doubtful of health centers. Patients are asked to return home and continue with their medication.

Difficulties in accessing hospitals, means that most people have to self-medicate by taking drugs without prescription. It means also that a large proportion of the continent’s population would have to turn to traditional treatments in the form of herbal concoctions. This was one of the reasons why traditional healers were banned from operating during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone as many rural dwellers ran to them for treatment instead of going to hospitals.

As radio presenters, we quickly learnt during Ebola that focusing our programmes on the infection and death rates resulted in an information fatigue and gave people less hope. We redesigned an approach that did give people information about spread of the virus, but also provided a corresponding reportage on how communities and families could be protected from the outbreak. By broadcasting survivor information and hosting them live, we helped to reduce paranoia. The same power of radio was unleashed to contain Ebola in Sierra Leone can be replicated through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic.