The Need For Sound Behavior Change In Liberia

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We are not opposed to the changes we are expected to make. These changes include (as in the case of Ebola and Covid-19) wearing masks or gloves, washing hands with soap and water many, many times during the day and maintaining social distancing with your friends.  However, we are trying to figure out how long this will last until we go back to “normal day.” We are also constantly listening to the radio, listening in conversation and reading newspapers to give us more information.

Lovette A. Tucker, [email protected], Contributing Writer


Many examples abound about times Liberians changed their habits and behavior because of some perceived (and direct) threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The civil crisis forced Liberians to change their behavior.  People left their comfortable, safe environments for other countries because of the fear of violence.  Even though some did not experience the violence directly, just the “they say” and the threat of it caused people to cook at night, live in the forests, sleep on the ground, eat questionable meet and vegetables, and other things which they may not have done during “normal times”.  The conditions of war caused people to travel in great numbers to countries and live in degrading circumstances.

Happily, after the crisis many people returned to their homes in the hope of rebuilding what had been lost.  For some, there was nothing to come back to, so again they had to develop a different set of norms/rules to adapt to where they landed. If one wanted to live, everyone changed their behavior.

The Ebola virus also forced Liberians to change their behavior.  No touching, i.e. shaking hands, hugging and washing hands became the changed behavior during this time. If one wanted to live, everyone changed their behavior.

Sociologists explain that environmental, personal, and behavioral characteristics are major factors in determining your behavior.  James Prochaska, from the University of Rhode Island developed the theory that there are five stages to successful behavior change.

The first stage is called Precontemplation. At this stage, we see nothing in the foreseeable future that will force a change in our behavior.  We have no plans in the immediate future to change because we are not fully aware of the benefits of the change. For example, back in January and February 2020 even though we had heard about COVID-19 pandemic, and the havoc it was causing in other parts of the world we saw no reason to do anything here in Liberia.  There were many rumors about who started it and how it reminded us of Ebola but we didn’t mind the message because it was “way over in China.” People had reverted to unhygienic practices after Ebola because there wasn’t an overwhelming reason to change. After all, the Ebola virus had been eliminated.

The second stage is called Contemplation stage.  People in Monrovia in 1989 were aware of fighting and conflict in Nimba and had begun to “seriously think about it” but not many people made a commitment to change their behavior to be safe.  They still believed that somebody else would take care of the problem.  People were making cautious steps, but they fit in the area of “in case something happens”. Many people in this stage can be described as ambivalent.  

We are not opposed to the changes we are expected to make. These changes include (as in the case of Ebola and Covid-19) wearing masks or gloves, washing hands with soap and water many, many times during the day and maintaining social distancing with your friends.  However, we are trying to figure out how long this will last until we go back to “normal day.” We are also constantly listening to the radio, listening in conversation and reading newspapers to give us more information.

The Preparation stage can be considered the information gathering and planning stage. According to Prochaska in his book, Changing for Good, fifty percent of the people who attempt behavior change and skip this stage will relapse within 21 days. In 1989/90 people began to buy more rice and goods.  During the recent gas crisis, lines appeared at gasoline stations. In addition to putting gas in their cars or motorbikes, consumers brought containers to store extra gasoline. They believed that things were going to blow over, so they hunkered down to wait things out.

During the gasoline shortage those who had not purchased gasoline before the crisis began to leave their vehicles at the stations overnight, hoping to catch the fuel trucks when they arrived.  Of course, behavior changed because they either had to sleep in the cars or walk home.  During the Ebola action stage, people wore long sleeves at the risk of touching each other. 

In the Implementation stage, the government moves ahead faster than the rest of us.  Authorities have information first so they can make pronouncements and announce decisions which should modify behavior of the residents or the environment of the affected areas. Adequate communication from knowledgeable sources is crucial during this time.  If people get scattered communication from different sources there will be gaps in the information.  Those gaps will be filled in with misinformation by “they say” and only add to the confusion.  There was a gasoline shortage in the country a few months ago.  The reasons given for the shortage were, at best unbelievable (the gasoline evaporated in the tanks). People filled in the gaps (government officials sold the gas to get money to pay salaries). During this stage it is extremely important the message which gets out to the public is consistent and positive.  The public needs to believe the people who are giving the message. 

During the gasoline shortage those who had not purchased gasoline before the crisis began to leave their vehicles at the stations overnight, hoping to catch the fuel trucks when they arrived.  Of course, behavior changed because they either had to sleep in the cars or walk home.  During the Ebola action stage, people wore long sleeves at the risk of touching each other.  People developed the behaviors of washing hands frequently and doing positive things they heard were necessary to stay away from the deadly disease.

The final stage is Maintenance. Prochaska’s model specifies that after six months of consistent action, you transition into Maintenance. Getting to that point mostly involves doing whatever keeps you strong, motivated and focused. Finding ways to integrate your chosen behavior change into your social life and sense of identity can be a big help. In this stage, the peak of the event has passed but the momentum that was used to dissipate the crisis needs to be consolidated.   During Ebola we reached as high as 4,000 deaths but we got our act together.  Everyone in the country had become educated about the disease and how to prevent it.  There were international actors who came in and established hospitals to deal with the infected.  Ebola was on the mind of every person.  Radio and print advertisements continuously reminded us to wash our hands, stay out of close contact with people and to generally be careful.  We were informed of those who had recovered from the disease and what they did.  We became hopeful and gradually Ebola left us.  Depending on the type of behavior, whether it is addictive or cultural, this stage may well extend from six months to an indeterminate period past the initial event. 

Unfortunately, this is where we err.  This is the hardest stage to overcome.  Liberians have not overcome this stage as a nation. After each crisis we seem to revert to old unhygienic and criminal behaviors. These behaviors are so ingrained in us that it only takes a traumatic event such as a pandemic or war to even get us to shift temporarily..

Behavioral Change Post COVID-19

Several things can trigger people in these stages to relapse: stress, crisis, apathy, boredom, a loss of environmental or emotional support, or a frustrating plateau in progress. Did our societal behavior change as a result of these events? Only temporarily.

In Liberia even though we were clear about what caused the pandemic or Ebola or the war, we are less clear about how to move forward and more importantly how to communicate and motivate the entire population to do better.  This time around we need to do a better job of creating a valuable end phase. The end phase only happens when we continue the changed behaviors for at least two years. In the end phase, the behavior change is completely integrated, and the temptation to revert to the former behavior is entirely gone. This behavior change is no longer something we have to “do” — it’s just who we are.

So how do we proceed? First, we need to identify those behaviors that push us forward as a nation.  I’m not talking about jobs or careers.  Positive behaviors + critical thinking + goals make us be the nation we want to be.  We always compare ourselves to more successful African nations. In order to grow we should be very specific and targeted about the behaviors we want to change and maintain. 

First, we must be honest with ourselves about what brought about the event.  Was it corruption, nepotism, unhealthy habits? Once we can articulate the problem we can begin to find solutions.  The solution to minimizing corruption is to begin to vigorously identify what corruption is (Phases 1 and 2). Then we must be prepared to take visual action. That means that people must see the consequences. There must be changes to education beyond billboards and advertisements.  We must be prepared to make this education a part of our formal and informal education processes.  Honesty and integrity can be taught in schools and churches/mosques. Administrators should hold people to higher standards in the workplaces.  Corruption is evil whether it involves the man down the road or your favorite uncle.  The consequences must be appropriate, fair and clear. Any employee or employee who exhibits corrupt behavior should be held to the same standard. 

In the case of those behaviors that are changed because of medical threats similar processes can be tried. Whether it is malaria, Ebola, Covid-19, or other common diseases that befall us as a nation we need to advertise cures, give hope, be specific about the remedies. Much of the time the remedies are simple such as washing hands and maintaining healthy habits. We should be made aware of the symptons of these diseases on a national scale through large scale advertising and community awareness efforts. 

Public trust has eroded so sharply with government personalities.  It is assumed that every official is corrupt and unwilling to listen to the cries of the people.  Whether this is true or not doesn’t matter. Perception is important and right now the perception is don’t believe most things that come from government officials.  Divisive politics has degraded our natural trust.  Against this backdrop it is important to find individuals who still have the public’s confidence.  These are private citizens who have worked in the interest of the Liberian people.  It is these people who we should now turn to be our messengers.  The man down the street is more likely to listen to a private individual who has demonstrated integrity and honesty in past dealings than someone who works in government, no matter how professional the government official is.  It is the messenger and the dynamism of the message that count.

Additionally, as a nation we can set short term, tangible goals that can be measured and are celebrated. Too often these goals exist when the internationals are leading the charge. The monitoring of the goals dissipates when the internationals leave.  This is why many international projects fail past the lifespan of the project.  Behaviors have not reached the end phase.  We are simply waiting for normal days.

Perhaps, hopefully this time behaviors will change but it is up to each one of us to see the termination of unhealthy habits and behaviors.

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