President Obama recently announced that approximately 3,000 U.S. troops will deploy to West Africa in an effort to combat the Ebola epidemic, which has struck more than 4,985 people and resulted in over 2,461 deaths.  The U.S. Africa Command will establish its Joint Force Command headquarters in Monrovia, Liberia to coordinate regional assistance to Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal.  The additional health facilities, medical expertise, equipment, and supplies that the U.S. will provide are desperately needed, yet the mission’s effectiveness will depend in part on the United States’ ability to adequately address the underlying governance challenges and social dynamics that are propelling this debilitating virus.

On September 18, the international non-profit IREX sponsored a Washington, D.C. event entitled Ebola in Liberia: The Challenges of Preserving Peace in a Public Crisis.  Panelists in the field of healthcare, media and civil society development, and justice sector reform offered useful observations concerning Liberia’s governance obstacles and their effect on the Ebola outbreak.  The experts highlighted the social realities that have hindered the fight against Ebola and identified potential opportunities for the upcoming U.S. mission to maximize its impact in Liberia.

Mistrust of Government and Lack of Education

Panelists emphasized the manner in which Liberians’ lack of trust in their government, lack of education, and lack of access to accurate health information produced a perfect storm in which Ebola was able to spread relatively unchecked in the early phases of the epidemic.  After a 14 year civil war that ended in 2003, many Liberians continue to distrust their government, and this culture of suspicion towards authorities contributes to peoples’ unwillingness to abide by government orders and healthcare instructions.  In a country with an adult literacy rate of 43% and sparse internet access outside of the capital, many Liberians believed that the Liberian government was spreading fictitious stories when cases of Ebola were first reported in early 2014.  At the beginning of the outbreak, the government also sent conflicting messages that contributed to peoples’ uncertainties, with some high ranking officials voicing skepticism concerning the outbreak’s extent.  The panelists further explained that Liberian journalists with little access to scientific information commonly published stories about Ebola with sensationalized and false information that misled an already under-informed population.  Because the local media strongly influences perceptions and tensions throughout Liberia, the impact of this media coverage had significant and potentially fatal consequences.

Traditional Practices

The lack of education and access to information outside of Monrovia has also contributed to the pervasiveness of traditional and religious practices that spread Ebola.  For example, panelists described Muslim burial rituals performed by some Liberians that traditionally involve close contact with corpses.  Many Liberians who believe in witchcraft also believe that consuming a human heart can result in the acquisition of supernatural powers.  This belief has both contributed to the spread of Ebola and to local peoples’ mistrust of modern healthcare providers, some of whom were suspected of fabricating rumors of Ebola in a ploy to obtain the hearts of corpses.  Without proper access to healthcare information that Liberians perceive as trustworthy, the IREX panelists emphasized that such practices will likely continue.

Opportunities for the U.S. Mission

Although the United States’ upcoming mission in West Africa will not be sufficient to halt the epidemic, but the U.S. does have an opportunity to set the stage for future interventions and to strongly influence Ebola’s trajectory.  During the IREX event, panelists proposed several ways that U.S. interventions might counteract the social dynamics that have contributed to the especially rapid spread of Ebola in Liberia. Firstly, the U.S. should strive to work with the Liberian government in its Ebola efforts, and to strengthen the government’s capacity to meet the needs of its people and gain their trust.  Unless the government can improve its ability to effectively reach and inform Liberians, experts argued that its efforts will continue to spurn suspicion, dismissal, and in some cases, violence.

Alongside efforts to bolster the Liberian government’s capacity, panelists stressed the importance of working with civil society and traditional leaders to educate people about traditional and religious practices that can spread Ebola.  Panelists noted that civil society members and traditional leaders enjoy a level of respect in their communities, as well as access to information about community members’ specific needs, that many Liberian government officials do not possess.  Consequently, civil society and traditional leaders are potentially useful partners in the fight against the epidemic.  Additionally, panelists suggested that U.S. troops could increase Liberians’ willingness to support their mission by informing local journalists of their operations so that reporters can accurately explain the motivations behind the troops’ presence to other Liberians, many of whom may wrongly assume that the troops are in Liberia to carry out acts of force.

Finally, the experts observed that the U.S. is well-positioned to play a crucial logistical role in transporting equipment, medical workers, and supplies throughout the country.  Liberia’s minimal infrastructure is one of the most formidable obstacles to treating Ebola effectively, and panelists expressed hopes that U.S. troops would place particular importance on meeting the logistical needs of relief efforts.