Ottawa, Canada - A Liberian journalist says the 2014 Ebola crisis in Liberia was fueled by misinformation and the lack of proper risk communication strategy employed by government and other humanitarian institutions.
“Many people could not believe the government obviously because past and present governments have struggled to effectively communicate with citizens and this has led to serious trust issue” – Alpha Daffae Senkpeni, FrontPage Africa Sub-Editor
Presenting on the topic - “The Ebola Outbreak in Liberia: A Crisis of Public Health and Information,” journalist Alpha Daffae Senkpeni told the audience attending the 2016 conference of Canada Science Police Centre (CSCP) held at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa, Canada that many deaths could have been avoided if Liberia had trained health journalists and the government had considered the significance of risk communication.
Recalling the many incidents of information crisis including the infamous decision by government to censor journalists covering the outbreak and missteps in quarantining West Point in Monrovia, Senkpeni told the audience that the lack of trust in government escalated the situation.
“Many people could not believe the government obviously because past and present governments have struggled to effectively communicate with citizens and this has led serious trust issue,” Senkpeni said.
“Once the source of the information is not transparent or not credible then you have a problem, because the target audience will not adopt new behavior that the communicator wants.”
He also outlined how the lack of trained journalists in health reporting and risk communication experts in the country helped escalating the information crisis.
“Liberians relied heavily on radio stations for information, so once the journalists themselves were not knowledgeable about what they were reporting then the public became misinformed as well,” he said.
“From the early stage of the outbreak, even the messages that were going out to the public were inaccurate."
"This made rural communities to reject the message because the messaging process and channels were severing as barriers.”
He also called for international support in sponsoring the training of Liberian journalists in health reporting and risk communication, this he said, will help Liberia prepare for future public health crisis.
Senkpeni, a FrontPage Africa sub editor and also news and programs director of LACSA Radio - a community radio station based in Grand Bassa County, is attending the conference under the auspices of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ).
Organized by CSPC, the conference has 30 panel sessions, over 150 panelists, over 600 participants, and five pre-conference symposiums.
According to the CSPC, the 2016 conference is a forum looking at series of current and future issues of Canada science and innovation policy.
Senkpeni shared the panel with Damien Chalaud, Executive Director of WFSJ, Dr. Theresa Tham, Assistant Deputy Minister, Public Health Agency of Canada and David Secko, Associate Professor, University of Concordia.
WFSJ organized the panel under the theme “Back to the Future: What Ebola Thought Us About Risk communication.”
Speaking also, Dr. Tham said there are so many questions that need to be asked following the end of the world’s worst Ebola outbreak that killed over 11, 000 people in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
She said - “Building trust and credibility in a crisis is critical, because it is difficult to repair when it is broken.” She added that Canada was lucky to have science reporter during the outbreak, so its public could easily deal with the situation.
It can be recalled that mistrust in government over the handling of the virus ignited rumors. Form the onset, politicians doubted the outbreak as the Ministry of Health expressed concern about closing borders with Guinea and requested US$5 million to curb the virus.
There were outraged in some communities as many refuse to follow safety protocols instituted by health authorities, thereby further spreading the virus in communities.
Speaking earlier, Chalaud outlined the impact of risk communication during crisis like Ebola, and recalled how journalists “Painted the worse picture” due to the lack of information.
The WFSJ Executive Director said risk communication must be taken into account when it comes to dealing with crisis.
WFSJ has been working in West Africa since the Ebola outbreak, training journalist about infectious diseases and risk communication. It is working with over 70,000 journalists across the globe.
The WFSJ is international organization representing 52 science journalists’ associations of science and technology journalists from Africa, the Americas, the Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East.
It seeks to further science journalism as a bridge between science, scientists and the public and has been promoting the role of science journalists as key players in civil society and democracy.
The Federation’s goals are to improve the quality of science reporting, promote standards and support science and technology journalists worldwide.