I am sitting here in Washington, D.C., in pseudo-lockdown in my apartment, working remotely in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus throughout the country and world.
I’ve been in lockdown before—during elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), during unrest in southern Turkey, permanently in Baghdad and Aden, but never in my home country—so this is both new and not new.
A friend in a country overseas who is responding to a humanitarian crisis received an email from a fellow Country Director earlier this week. “Why are we holding our meetings remotely?” the email read. “Even during Ebola, we met in person. Let us be brave!”
This cowboy attitude is tired and old.
The humanitarian community learned a lot of valuable lessons during the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) crisis. Chief among them: Societal change was needed to stop the march of the virus throughout towns, districts, and the world. But COVID-19 is a different—far more contagious—virus than EVD. It is another kind of societal change that is needed now.
I was on a call later in the week with humanitarians from all around the world. EVD again came up. “What we have to remember,” someone said, “is that the EVD crisis was worsened in the beginning when the humanitarian response did not involve the community. What finally helped was bringing in anthropologists as well as medical experts.”
He was talking about DRC, but the same was true when I worked in West Africa. Communities in Sierra Leone knew the risks of spreading the virus during the EVD crisis. Mothers in Bo knew the risks when they hugged their sick child, but how could they not? Sons in Port Loco knew the risks when they took care of their dying fathers. Kind neighbors in Kenema knew the risks when they visited lonely, ill members of their community. EVD hit caretakers the hardest. It is a cruel disease. It spreads from those who are sick to those who love them most.
This is why EVD couldn’t be stopped by cowboy humanitarians who rode in with their medical genius but were unable to speak, much less meaningfully engage, with the local community. Medical expertise saved many lives, but it took anthropologists and community leaders, elders, imams and priests, women activists, and others to help empower communities to stop the spread. If you want a mother not to hug her sick child, you have to carefully, personally, compassionately help her see how much more valuable she is to her child alive than dead.
This is what the communities in Sierra Leone did for us all, and this is the lesson we must take now that we are faced with COVID-19. Everyone in the world must join together to face this crisis—humanitarians included. We must drastically—yet only temporarily—change our habits at a local level to make a global impact. We must learn from the brave communities who were hit with EVD, who did change their behavior and arrested its spread. It is more courageous to alter our habits appropriately—which in the case of COVID-19 means holding our meetings remotely, standing at least six feet from strangers and friends alike, self-quarantining if we feel ill—than it is to barrel ahead the same as ever.
Simultaneously, we must continue to support humanitarian operations within this new normal. The longer the virus is allowed to spread, the more likely it is to directly impact those who are most vulnerable: people in refugee camps, homeless shelters, and the elderly. The more endangered they are, the more susceptible we all collectively become. We must support those most at risk, not just to save their lives but our own as well.
Let us rely on and support local leadership and expertise, be it in my neighborhood in D.C., Goma, DRC, Sittwe, Raqqah, or anywhere else. Let us throw out our cowboy mentalities and embrace the appropriate, community-based behavior change that will stop this crisis.
Let us be brave.