COVID-19 has been slow to strike Africa. Currently, only 1 percent of cases worldwide are on the African continent. Like everywhere else, cases are expected to increase exponentially. But unlike many other places, most African countries’ health-care systems are far less prepared to respond. Liberia has just three ventilators in the entire country. Somalia has fifteen intensive care unit (ICU) beds.
‘We must take this opportunity to apply lessons from past health crises, like Ebola, to lessen the immediate toll of COVID-19 on African countries’
While the United States is focused on its own crisis, we have seen that taking a “their problem” approach can have devastating consequences. If highly developed countries succeed in drastically reducing the number of cases domestically, but the virus is not snuffed out globally, then we risk reimporting it from other countries, as is already happening in China. We must take this opportunity to apply lessons from past health crises, like Ebola, to lessen the immediate toll of COVID-19 on African countries while paving the way for participatory governance in the longer term. This long-term focus is essential for achieving the United Nation’s sustainable development goals and creating resilience to future pandemics. Citizens who have a voice in government and civic affairs trust their governments and credible media organizations, making them more likely to follow critical health directives such as social distancing and regular hand washing. Additionally, a 2019 study of 170 countries shows evidence that democracy is good for your health.
My organization, IREX, is a global nonprofit organization committed to development and education around the world. During the 2014 Ebola crisis, we were on the front lines in Liberia. Working with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), we supported the efforts of government, media, and civil society to stop the spread of misinformation by countering it with accurate, life-saving information, and we mobilized community leaders to address negative impacts like violence and school closures. Encouragingly, from Liberia’s initial response to COVID-19, it appears these efforts during Ebola have improved the country's ability to respond to the current crisis.
Here’s what we learned that can inform how developing countries respond to the immediate COVID-19 crisis, and empower citizens to participate in public decision-making to set them up for future success.
Engage Community and Government Leaders at the Local Level
Engaging local leaders to share issues their communities are facing as a result of the health crisis, such as school closures and food shortages, and to create strategies and action plans, helps keep communities safe in the short term and can strengthen development capabilities in the longer term. For COVID-19, this can be done virtually.
Since the height of the Ebola crisis, civil society organizations and county-level leaders in Liberia have continued to engage each other through the use of county and social development funds. Recently, community leaders began COVID-19 awareness work, such as appearing on radio shows and passing out informational pamphlets, even in the most remote parts of the country.
Bring Government Officials and Journalists Together to Educate the Public
Briefing specialized reporters on what to cover and training government agencies on how to deliver effective and clear messages increases a shared, accurate awareness of prevention methods in the immediate term to help stop the spread of new cases. It also lays the foundation for trust between government agencies and the media. ￼
Liberia’s National Public Health Institute has already taken action to engage local members of the media on how to communicate pertinent information and combat misconceptions about COVID-19. To preempt misinformation, the institute set up a WhatsApp group with local media to relay accurate information. Radio and TV stations are also running programming to educate the public on how the virus is transmitted and the best ways to prevent its spread.
Ensure Media Independence to Hold Officials Accountable for Spending Public Funds
Empowering civil society and the media to track special crisis funding and disseminate that information is crucial for citizens to understand who is offering what crisis-related programs and help. Support can redefine civil society and the media’s role, making it a norm to bring transparency and accountability to public funds.
‘Today, this groundwork appears to be paying dividends, especially at the local level’
The Liberian government has only just begun public expenditures related to COVID-19, and significant foreign assistance has not yet begun to flow, so time will tell whether media organizations hold officials accountable for using dollars wisely. Encouragingly, journalists and activists have been monitoring other public expenditures. Earlier this year, for example, the Liberia Media Accountability Network called out the Ministry of Youth and Sports for not granting a freedom of information request related to financial report data.
There is still much to do in Liberia to achieve robust and resilient participatory governance. Nonetheless, the Ebola crisis provided an opportunity and urgency to support the functionality of civil society, news media, and local leaders, and to forge trusted relationships between those actors and different levels of government. Today, this groundwork appears to be paying dividends, especially at the local level. As the international community prepares to help developing countries respond to COVID-19, we should use the shared sense of urgency not just to mobilize citizens to face down the immediate pandemic, but to catalyze greater participation in government, and better prepare countries to meet the sustainable development goals.