One of the barriers to building trust during the Ebola outbreak was that some of the messages being shared came into direct conflict with the traditional beliefs and practices of many Sierra Leoneans.
One example of this is the popularity of traditional healers. Rather than attending a hospital or health centre, people would go to see traditional healers when they fell ill. This meant they didn’t receive the medical attention they desperately needed and the likelihood that they would spread the virus increased. So, we began to reach out to traditional healers, asking them to change their practices and refer people to medical facilities instead.
Mabrat Abdulai is a Learning and Knowledge Management Advisor for Concern in Sierra Leone and explains that this was not an easy process.
“At the start, it was difficult for them, because that was their only means of making a living. So us telling them to stop their usual practice, it was not easy. But later with education and constant training, they were able to stop their practice. When they themselves started becoming infected, that scared them, so they stopped immediately.”
Those hard-won relationships with the traditional healers have been maintained in order to tackle malaria and other diseases. They have since become vocal health advocates in their communities, and are in the perfect position to convey the right messages about COVID-19.
Charlotte Woellwarth adds that this has contributed to a swift response to the current outbreak.
“Because we've already established a relationship with them, I'd say the hardest bit of the work is done. They already know how we work and we understand them. So I think we might be able to do something very productive with this. The trust is there.”