“Don’t Talk to Me about Ebola…”

March 9, 2016
Reporters in Guinea face resentment and “Ebola fatigue” when reporting on health issues.

Guinea was proclaimed “Ebola Free” at the end of 2015, but entered a three-month period of reinforced surveillance. Health activists and state authorities have warned repeatedly of the need for vigilance – basic health and hygiene measures, like regular hand-washing, must continue if Guinea wants to keep the Ebola virus at bay.

The Internews radio show Ebola Chrono Plus has carried reports from across the country, documenting the campaigns to improve health standards and maintain checks and controls. But journalists acknowledge that the messages going out are often falling on deaf ears, while the questions they ask about Ebola often get a blunt, sometimes hostile response: “we don’t want to talk about it.”

Reporter Asmao Diallo says the hostility is far less threatening than what she witnessed at the height of the Ebola epidemic, particularly in Forécariyah, 70 kilometers south-east of Conakry, a region deeply touched by Ebola. “In Forécariyah, you could be beaten up simply for mentioning Ebola,” Asmao recalls. “Red Cross vehicles were removing all their insignia. Health workers were getting rid of their white t-shirts, for fear of being identified with the campaigns against Ebola. It was violent.”

The climate has changed. The violence is no longer there, but journalists still tread carefully. “You can feel people’s resentment,” Asmo explains. “They don’t want to talk. They are bitter about the sacrifices they made during the Ebola period. They don’t like being told to wash their hands. They don’t like handing over the bodies of their loved ones to strangers. They were told: ‘Ebola is over’, so they are asking: ‘why all this?’”

Asmao’s colleaque, Mohamed Bah, has been a regular visitor to Forécariyah in recent months, looking at community health issues and the complications arising from new Ebola cases in close-by Sierra Leone. Mohamed says there is still a wall of reticence reporters have to break down. “Sometimes people will talk, sometimes they won’t. It can all depend on the character of the person you are dealing with or the angle you are pursuing.”

Mohamed acknowledges that journalists are frequently denigrated as “accomplices” of unwelcome visiting health delegations and are exposed to the same accusations – bringing unwanted attention back to Ebola in the area; intruding into people’s lives, even being beneficiaries of some kind of lucrative “Ebola Business.”

Mohamed has heard the arguments before and tries to establish his independent credentials or use humor to break down barriers. But he was shocked when a local health official, speaking off record, voiced many of the same popular prejudices against surveillance measures and Ebola warnings. Interviewed on microphone, the official took a very different line, explaining the need for vigilance against Ebola, backing all the measures being reinforced locally.

In the three months since Guinea was declared Ebola-free, Ebola Chrono Plus has kept a steady focus on Ebola-related issues. The challenges faced by the guéris – those cured of Ebola, but still confronting poverty, stigmatization and trauma; Guinea’s response to the fresh outbreak of Ebola in neighbouring Sierra Leone in January; the attempts to regenerate areas badly hit by Ebola and the investment in long-term facilities aimed at tackling future epidemics, all have featured prominently in the show’s programming.

As Editor-in-Chief of Ebola Chrono Plus, Afiwa Mata Ahouadjogbé stresses that the radio show is not about crusading or doing the authorities’ work. “It is not for us to tell people what to do,” Afiwa Mata points out. “We present the facts and suggest people make decisions about their own lives.”

From what she has seen as a reporter in areas like Coyah and Dubréka in recent months, Afiwa Mata notes “a split between the health sector and the population” in regard to Ebola. The medical experts, backed by the authorities, want to get the same messages across: wash your hands, bury your dead safely, minimize the risks. But they are up against a growing “Ebola fatigue” on the part of the population.

“You could sense it at the main market in Coyah, which is dominated by women,” Afiwa Mata explains. “In the past, there were lots of kits in place for hand-washing. It was taken seriously. But after Guinea was declared free, all those kits were removed. It is like people are saying to the state: ‘you held a big party, you said Ebola was over, can you not leave us alone?’”

Even covering stories not related to Ebola, health journalists can easily find their motives under question. Asmao Diallo recently reported from Kindia, Guinea’s third-largest city, 100Km north-east of Conakry. Asmao’s assignment was to report on access to water shortages in Kindia and neonatal care. But there was an assumption on the part of many interviewees that her questions would inevitably lead into an unwanted probe into Ebola.

“There was even a local health official who couldn’t work out what I was doing,” Asmao recalls. “He kept asking, ‘you have enough health problems to deal with in Conakry, so why do you have to come here? Are you just looking for trouble?’”

Internews’ work in Guinea is funded by the US Agency for International Development.