How a Facebook post helped children orphaned by ebola in Sierra Leone
Yesterday I received a Facebook message from a woman in the diaspora trying to get help for an ebola affected family in Sierra Leone. She had sent messages to the Facebook page of the Ministry of Health but no one had responded. Five children in Wellington, a rural community outside of Freetown had lost both parents to ebola. Two of them were complaining of headaches and fever but they were still living at home with their other siblings. Within 12 hours of posting the message on my Facebook wall and asking for contact numbers for individuals at the Ministry who could provide urgent help, someone had given me two numbers to call, the post had been shared three times, and a volunteer agreed to go find the house and check on the children the very next day. By morning an ambulance had arrived to take the two children into care. In addition to this, community volunteer Ms. Saufiatu Tunis who saw my post went to the house the following morning to check on the children. On site she discovered that the landlord had given the children an eviction notice because of ebola stigma. Ms Tunis has made contact with social services at UNICEF and we are in discussion on how to provide further assistance to the children. Had the Facebook appeal not come through to my inbox those two children may not have gotten help. What makes the whole incident more interesting is that I am not in Sierra Leone, nor had I ever met the woman who sent me the message, or Ms Tunis who went to the children’s home. Social media can be powerful even in places like Sierra Leone with just about 2% internet penetration so the Ministry of Health should not overlook it.
The mobile phone and telecoms boom in Sierra Leone means that social media and technology can be powerful tools for ebola health prevention messages and getting patients to care. The country experienced a 20% growth in mobile subscribers between 2012–2013. There are 4.2 million active mobile subscribers in Sierra Leone, accounting for 70% of the population. This means that there is a great opportunity to capitalize on mobile and social media in the ebola effort.
The Ministry of Health’s use of Facebook and Whatsapp despite their wide penetration amongst the youth and the middle class in urban centers has been limited. Since the capital city of Freetown now has the highest number of cases, it is time for health officials to use mobile technology and develop a social media strategy.
Since the ebola outbreak in Guinea started making the news in March 2014, Sierra Leoneans have used Facebook to raise awareness, ask questions, and to raise funds for the anti ebola effort. They even try to co opt the Ice Bucket Challenge. Even more prolific than Facebook for ebola news updates is Whatsapp, it is so effective in reaching people that one prank message from someone posing as a Nigerian pastor got people across the country to bathe in salt water and read Bible passages in the middle of the night back in July as a means of warding off ebola.
There are ebola conspiracy theories being shared daily on Whatsapp like the MH17 connection. According to this theory the reason why MH17 was shot down was to kill WHO officials who were about to expose Tulane University ebola experiments in Kenema. Apparently there is a race for an ebola vaccine and the people in Kenema were injected with ebola with funding from Bill & Melinda Gates and the Soros Foundation. The video was sent to me by two people in the diaspora who received it from Sierra Leone. If we can get these kinds of messages on Whatsapp we should also be receiving ebola life saving messages as well. I reached out to several people on my Whatsapp from Siera Leone to find out if they had received any PSA type ebola educational content and they said they hadn’t. One told me that earlier on in the outbreak he had received sms messages from his mobile phone operator but that was all.
Whether through Facebook or Whatsapp; the literate, the young, and the middle class stay informed of breaking news long before it ever makes it to press. Instead of finding ways to tap into social media technologies the Ministry of Health is doing very little by way of Facebook and WhatsApp to share ebola prevention messages or for contact tracing.
Every day or two the Ministry of Health which joined Facebook on April 28 2014 publishes ebola incidence reports. This is the government’s official tally of the number of ebola cases in the country. The posts always contain a bank account for ebola donations, and at the very end a toll free 117 number to call in case of emergency. During the month of June the Ministry of Health posted 5 ebola prevention messages, diagrams developed in partnership with UNICEF. From July to date there have been no additional prevention specific messages posted on the page. In their place instead are photos of the President conducting visits to ebola sites, and the incidence report which now links to the Ministry’s website. Why the ebola prevention messages were stopped is unclear. Not using Facebook and Whatsapp is a serious missed opportunity at education. I have yet to see one video, or health PSA from the Health Ministry on Facebook. However I have received numerous screen grabs of official letters on ebola, videos on ebola conspiracy theories and more via Whatsapp. All the while living in Ghana.
- Improving the Ministry of Health’s Facebook Page The Ministry should not treat Facebook as a government notice board. Instead it should ensure that there is always someone on the page to answer ALL QUESTIONS and inquiries, and to RESPOND TO MESSAGES. People assume they can contact the Ministry directly on its page which they should be able to do. In addition to sharing the ebola incidence report the Ministry should publish ebola prevention messages, and regional success stories about what people did to survive ebola. The Ministry should buy Facebook adverts and do tailored adverts for different age groups and locations.
- Use Images People are more likely to believe what they see than what they read, and if you’re partially illiterate like many on Facebook then images would really help to spread educational messages. Also people are more likely to download an image to their phone and keep it for reference. The same can not be said for text.
- Reporting Suspected Cases While 117 is ideal on a national scale we need to decentralize the reporting of cases so that people can get faster care, and that they can reach people they trust from within their own community. In this regard I think that each ward, in each constituency should have a designated phone number that is registered on Whatapp. Those used and trained in our 2012 elections are the best people to hire to man the lines because they know their communities, and they are known. Not all areas have data, and a smart phone but in each community there is bound to be someone who has one and can report suspected cases.
- Ebola Education Messages The Ministry should develop a best practice ebola scenario guide that can be translated into visual aids small enough to be shared on Whatsapp, and to be used on Facebook too. Much like an emergency fire evacuation plan, the Ministry should create scenarios and tell people what to do incase of ebola. E.g. If I live in a house and the bread winner gets sick what do I do? If you feel sick yourself how can you try to minimize risk for others and isolate yourself until help can come? Those who have survived what actions did they take that we can start sharing. E.g. This is how I survived ebola.tell the full story and circulate them on Whatsapp as forwards. Sierra Leoneans will forward anything on Whatsapp you tell them to forward to 10 people for good luck, blessings, or for love.
- Video Public Service Announcements Identify trust worthy non government agents to use in spreading the ebola prevention messages. Find the likes of Mohamed Kallon, Jimmy B, Tam Bayoh, DJ Base, Emmerson Bockarie, Christiana Thorpe, Freetong Players, etc. These individuals should be filmed on camera educating people about the disease. Alternatively video animation can also be used. In addition to sharing these videos on Facebook and Whatsapp they can also be positioned as Youtube adverts.
I am not a health expert but I know Sierra Leone, and its media landscape. Without being on the ground I can imagine the radio talk shows, and in June I was there to see the newspaper headlines, and the TV shows. Traditional media does work in Sierra Leone, radio journalism there has its gems for sure but we are in a different time and dealing with a deadly killing machine. We have social media technology that allows us to communicate to a much larger quantifiable audience. The Ministry of Health needs to quickly develop and implement a social media strategy and get ahead of the Whatsapp conspiracy theories and Facebook misinformation.