This article was written by Bruce Y. Lee for Forbes. The complete article is available online with the introductory paragraph followed by excerpts on Professor Lily Tsai’s work below. 

The 2014 Ebola Outbreak Shows Why Open, Honest Communication Is Vital For Containing COVID-19 Coronavirus

The key to having any effective relationship is open honest communication. Love songs don’t tend to say, “you’re still the one I run to, the one that I belong to, even though I have no idea what you are actually doing,” or “something in the way that our conversations are so one-sided attracts me like no other lover.” Open honest bilateral communication is especially important when there is a common enemy like the COVID-19 causing coronavirus (SARS-CoV2) that calls for a properly coordinated response.

As an example, take a look at an evaluation recently published in the journal Comparative Political Studies. This evaluation showed how efforts to increase communication between the government and the people helped in the battle against the deadly Ebola virus. In the publication, Lily L. Tsai, PhD, Ford Professor of Political Science, and Benjamin S. Morse, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Robert A. Blair, PhD, the Joukowsky Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs at Brown University described how many Liberians already didn’t trust their government prior to the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak. According to the authors, this mistrust arose from a history of government corruption, abuse, autocratic rule, and repression. Being fooled before don’t exactly make you want to sing Al Green songs the next time around. After all, didn’t former U.S. President George W. Bush once said, “fool me once, shame on, shame on you. Fool me, you can’t get fooled again”?

In fact, as the authors stated, many Liberians actually believed that “Ebola was a ploy by the government to generate more aid funding.” Yes, apparently people were saying that the whole Ebola outbreak was a political hoax and that “many citizens believed authorities were willing to harm and even kill their own citizens for personal gain.” Gee, people calling a real infectious disease outbreak a hoax for ulterior motives? Can’t imagine that happening in the U.S., right?

Mistrust of the government is very problematic because during an infectious disease outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic, coordination across the population is needed.

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So how then did the Liberian government overcome the cone of mistrust that was already in place? How did they then convince people to comply with recommended preventive measures? Well, ordering people to do so alone was not going to work. That would be like ordering people to love you or commanding people to believe that you are the best. They may pretend to listen but when eyes are not on them they may just not comply. So something else was needed.

The government’s first attempt was a mass media campaign along with government representatives visiting different communities. But in the words of Dire Straits, the government soon realized, “that ain’t working,” as mistrust was already too high for the government alone to overcome. They needed help.

So the government then tried “mediated outreach.” That meant recruiting intermediaries to interact directly with the communities. This included intermediaries who actually lived in the same villages as the people they were trying to reach. Yes, you can say that the government got help from the village people.

These intermediaries then disseminated information, answered questions, and, in many cases, went door-to-door to try to directly engage every citizen. These volunteers even wore T-shirts, vests, bibs, and badges to clearly identify themselves as part of the government’s outreach campaign. After all, how can you ignore someone wearing a bib?

This was a considerable undertaking so the obvious question is: was all of this worth it? Well, from 2014 to 2015, the research team surveyed and interviewed citizens in Monrovia, Liberia, and found that after the mediated outreach, residents were:

  • 15% more likely to support disease control policies
  • 10% less likely to violate bans on public gatherings,
  • 26% more likely to support government workers burying those who passed away from Ebola, because improper burial techniques could lead to the spread of Ebola
  • 10% more likely to use hand sanitizer
  • 9% more likely to trust Liberia’s Ministry of Health.

Such differences could definitely make a difference in the control of a virus.

So what does this mean for the COVID-19 causing coronavirus outbreak or epidemic? Governments should be maintaining open and honest communication with their citizens and other residents. This is not the time for politics and agendas to take precedence. That would be like worrying about your political future while trying to put out a raging fire.

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Full article available online.

Header image of the James S Brady Press Briefing Room by Rob Pegoraro on Flickr