Fighting fear with information

An interview with Pierre Mignault, Internews in Guinea

Shortly after schools reopened in Guinea, in January, a rumor started that the Red Cross was going to spray the Ebola virus in schools.

In reality, the Red Cross had been disinfecting the homes of people infected with the virus — but when people continued to fall ill, some concluded that the Red Cross was spraying Ebola, not disinfectant. Once the rumor took hold at some schools in Conakry, the capital, people panicked — kids fled their schools and parents rushed over to pick them up, thwarting efforts to get children back in school after months without education. It was a prime example of the power of misinformation.

Despite initial optimism about the state of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, early in the year, rates of Ebola are starting to rise again in Guinea and Sierra Leone. Much has been made of the cultural and religious beliefs that prevent people from acting consistently on the saturation health messaging they have been receiving for months. However, it’s worth considering that this may not be about the limited capacity of the affected population to understand complicated information, and may in fact be the overly simplified messages themselves that have created misunderstandings.
Many Guineans, from the center of Conraky to rural areas near the borders, don’t trust the information they receive from the government, international aid groups and medical professionals, and lack access to accurate local information. Some people still don’t believe the disease exists at all. To break through these “pockets of resistance,” Internews saw an opportunity to disseminate reliable information in a way that resonates with the rural communities most affected by the disease.

Ebola Chrono, a radio program broadcast every weekday in 55 radio stations in Guinea, acts as a forum for local people to share information and personal stories about Ebola.

Pierre Mignault, the veteran journalist running the program, answered questions about the response to Ebola Chrono and its effects around the country.

What is Ebola Chrono?
When Ebola started, Internews wanted to develop a new project in Guinea because it was an emergency situation. From there came the idea of a daily news and current affairs radio show.

I trained some local journalists, and we put on a radio show. We have a very good team. We pre-tape a 20-minute show five days a week, which is a newscast at the beginning and then a magazine format of in-depth stories and interviews.

Mohamed Komah, Asmaou Diallo, Korka Bah, and Mamadou Kone, reporting from the Donka Ebola treatment center in Conakry.
Mohamed Komah, Asmaou Diallo, Korka Bah, and Mamadou Kone, reporting from the Donka Ebola treatment center in Conakry. The team produces Ebola Chrono, airing weekdays on 55 stations in Guinea. Credit: Internews

Where did the idea for the show come from?
When I came to Guinea, there was a very strong communication gap. We tried to figure out what was really happening and how to attack that.

I was talking with some reporters recently, and one of them told me about a university teacher who believed that Ebola wasn’t real. He washed his hands at the door just because he had to. And that’s an intellectual, thinking it’s not real. So traditional public relations messages have not worked.

We needed to do a show with journalistic standards, reliable information and dialogue. That’s the humanitarian journalism part — to get people to talk and show what’s really happening.

You mentioned that, in the first weeks of the outbreak, people would not go to treatment centers when they got sick. How did you cover this to encourage people to go to hospitals?
There were widespread rumors that once you were in a treatment center, doctors would kill you, take your organs and sell them abroad. As soon as we went on air, that was the first issue we addressed. We did a three-day series in the first person about what happens when you enter a treatment center. We included the conversation between the doctor and a young girl as she was being taken in. We looked at the families who were at the center to visit sick people, and we moved on to the treatment itself and what happens afterward. We looked at what happens when you die, including burials, and what happens when you survive and you make it out of the center.

That segment in itself might not have been enough to get people to go to treatment centers early, but it started eating away at the rumors around the centers. Now people know what happens inside.

What has the response been like from radio stations?
At first, the radio stations that broadcast our show were hesitant, but once the show got moving, a lot of them started replaying the show. A few stations have told us that they’re getting good feedback from their listeners — that’s why they play the show again.

We also get SMS and voicemail messages where people ask us questions, and we answer them. And we’re getting good questions, from people trying to get information.

We’re hearing a lot about the term “information resistance” — the idea that people in West Africa don’t believe what governments, aid groups and medical professionals are telling them about Ebola. Does this term accurately describe what is happening on the ground in Guinea?
They talk a lot about “information resistance” here. I think that’s a bad word for the situation. I think people have worries and fear, not resistance.

To deal with fear, we have a segment after the news report every day, which is a testimony interview with someone who had Ebola and was cured. They explain how it happened to them, what it did to their family, when they decided to go to a center for treatment, how they were treated there and — now that it’s passed — if they would have done anything differently.

The idea here is to use emotion to counter fear, which is an emotion.

What is the biggest barrier when it comes to eradicating Ebola?
One of the worries we have is that fear of Ebola is starting to fade. Our reporters are often in the streets and markets in Conakry, and they’ve seen that people have gotten used to living with Ebola, and the attitude toward safety measures has changed.

When Ebola first started, in November, you couldn’t walk into a building without washing your hands and being flashed for your temperature. There was a guard doing that. Now, in public places and buildings, there’s a handwashing kit at the door but no guard, and no one checks your temperature. So people can decide if they wash their hands. That’s worrying, in my view.

As far as treatment centers go, people do go in earlier, which is why I think there are fewer people dying.

What other concerns do you have when it comes to the resurgence of Ebola cases?
The toughest problem is burials, because once a patient dies, the virus is most contagious. Here, everyone washes and touches their dead. That’s where infection is happening. At first, a lot of people got infected because they took care of the sick at home. Now it’s happening through burials.

All over Guinea, you can’t bury someone in a cemetery unless you have a certificate saying the person was seen by a doctor — which means they were tested for Ebola. So what some people do is, they dress up the dead person, and leave town and travel to another place to bury her. That often starts a new chain of contamination, and because of the secrecy around it, it’s very hard to trace and contain.

For example, a brigadier in the police, who lived in a town where there were a lot of cases, left town with his wife and their daughter, who was sick, and she died in the car. They drove to Conakry, through a very populated area, and hid her so they could bury her quickly.

One of the committees that’s checking these things got wind of it — this was an emergency situation. But because of [the brigadier’s] power, he managed to hide. When they finally found him, he hadn’t been acting alone — he had connections — and they went to his superior in the police and said, this guy has to be checked. They were told he’d be available tomorrow, and they went away. When they came back the next day, he had buried his daughter and disappeared.

A month after we aired this story and did follow-ups, we haven’t heard any more about it. 

Alison Campbell is Internews Senior Director for Global Initiatives. Internews’ work in Guinea is supported by the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).

Banner photo: Journalist Mohamed Komah interviews an Ebola survivor at the Donka Ebola treatment center in Conakry. Credit: Internews

(This story originally ran in Medium.)