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The breathtaking denial and visceral fear some people here have towards anything to do with Ebola is disturbing. Many still don’t believe Ebola is real. Or they think the Red Cross brought Ebola to Guinea. That the chlorine spray used to disinfect buildings is actually spreading the virus. Some would rather seek help from traditional healers than go to a clinic and others use witchcraft and voodoo to banish the disease.
So while it is shocking to watch Red Cross volunteers being ignored and abused while trying to educate people in the community, it’s not surprising. I accompany a group of Guinean Red Cross volunteers doing “sensitisation” in a busy downtown market. They face rejection after rejection as they try to use drawings and diagrams to educate stall holders about the Ebola virus; how it is spread, how to avoid catching it and what to do if you or a loved one becomes sick.
One older woman ignores the young man in front of her for a good 15 minutes, as he gesticulates, cajoles and earnestly delivers his message. She sits stony-faced, deliberately sorting and re-sorting her chillies into piles. He almost gives up but fellow volunteer Aly Badara Kallo tells him to “just keep talking, keep talking until they tell you to go away; until they tell you to leave, you just keep going”. Eventually the woman lets go a begrudging smile, but only after being handed free chlorine and soap, and gives a reluctant Ebola fist pump to the team as they move on.
Just the sight of my Red Cross ID is enough to make one woman start yelling at me to go away, and she isn’t the only one. Conscious of drawing attention to myself, or inciting an angry crowd, I ask my colleague Elisabeth if I should take the ID off. She nods quietly. It’s impossible to explain how confused I feel having to do that and how naked I feel without it. Our emblem usually protects us, but not here.
Driving through Conakry the next day I see a man pointing and yelling at the Red Cross emblem on the side of our truck. Then he picks up a small stone and hurls it at us. He manages to hit our car a few times with pieces of grit before the traffic starts moving. As I look over my shoulder, he’s still scrabbling in the dirt trying to find more missiles.
The young volunteer leader Aly tells me this kind of attitude is common – that even when he talks on the radio, people call up and abuse him on air. Psychosocial support has helped him hang on to his convictions and develop a thicker skin. “We were trained not to be stopped by insults,” he tells me.
I ask him how he carries on in the face of the abuse and attacks and his answer is simple; “The only thing that can reduce the transmission of the Ebola virus is communication.” And he’s right. Spreading knowledge to drive out the fear is the aim of a campaign we launched in Guinea this week. “Words Against Ebola” asks people to choose from ten words, the one they think is most important to stop the disease.
My manager chooses to stop Ebola with “love”. Another colleague chooses “knowledge”. Our security guard chooses “dignity” and our driver chooses to stop Ebola with “trust”. It’s difficult to single out just one word, but after what I have witnessed this week, the word I choose is “courage”. Stop Ebola with courage. In honour of the young men and women of Guinean Red Cross.
To find out more about “Words Against Ebola” go to www.wordsagainstebola.org