Ebola in Liberia: “I won’t take breaks until it is gone”

I recently spent a morning with Dutch Hamilton, UNICEF’s Community Mobilization Coordinator for Bong County in Liberia, to learn first-hand how he engages with communities within the ever-changing context of Ebola.

On meeting Dutch, it is immediately apparent that he is the right man for the job. In fact, I hear him before I see him, laughing and joking with his colleagues. I later learned how he brings that same energy to his work in the community.

I asked him why community mobilization is so important in the current Ebola context.

“Social mobilization is important especially now with students going back to school. There are a lot of rumours that we need to challenge. Children help reinforce messages, so it’s important that social mobilizers talk to both parents and their children, and give them the right messages and help address rumours.”

UNICEF has supported the training and deployment of thousands of social mobilization workers across Liberia, who together, have reached over 398,000 households with messages on Ebola prevention since the start of the outbreak. UNICEF has also provided training material, and together with the Government of Liberia and partners, developed a wide range of messages on Ebola prevention, safe burials, and minimizing the risk of the spread of Ebola in schools.

It is through door-to-door mobilization and focus group discussions that social mobilizers are helping UNICEF better reach those in need and identify the most vulnerable.

Dutch has been working with Ebola affected communities since July. He tells me how his job has evolved from engaging only in raising awareness on how communities can prevent the spread of Ebola, to now encouraging parents and caregivers to access routine health care services, and to take children for routine immunization services.

“Everything is Ebola at the moment. When I talk about vaccines there is always disquiet and murmuring. People want to listen, but they are more receptive to other health issues only after I talk about Ebola. There are many rumours circulating about Ebola which hampers families accessing basic essential health care.”

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Dutch is deeply committed to helping his country fight Ebola. (c)UNICEF Liberia/2015

I observed Dutch and his team interacting with the Waterfall Station community in Gbarnga, and his rapport and understanding of a community’s needs was apparent. The community seemed to trust him and the team, as he engaged them and helped answer any questions and concerns they may have had.

As Dutch and I chatted after the community discussion, a number of people – teenage boys and girls, and elderly members of the community – came to Dutch seeking advice. They had many questions and they needed answers.

During our conversation, Dutch reflected on the past few months and recalled a particularly challenging time in December last year, when a family of 17 refused to enter a holding centre after two of their family members contracted Ebola.

He remembered how frightened the family was. “Are you coming to arrest us?” they had asked him.

He spent time talking to them and listening to their fears and eventually the family went to the isolation unit. Dutch also helped them to arrange with a fellow community member to take care of their house and chickens.

They all returned home healthy after the 21-day observation period was over, he recalled, with a smile. “The small things matter and make a huge difference in the lives of these vulnerable communities – a simple greeting in a local dialect or making sure an ambulance arrives with no noise goes a long way.”

Although the situation is changing, Dutch explained that the same basic rules still apply.

“Social mobilizers are the people in between. Building trust is important” said Dutch who explains how people are still scared.

Working in communities during the Ebola outbreak has not been easy, but Dutch and his team are an excellent example of the dedication and commitment of UNICEF frontline staff who continue to work under difficult circumstances.

“I am tired of Ebola in my country. I won’t take breaks until it is gone.”

I met Dutch one week later in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city, when he was attending a UNICEF training ahead of the upcoming measles vaccination campaign. I was once again greeted by his warm smile.

I asked Dutch why he does this job and he seemed surprised by the question. After a short pause, he said: “Passion. Passion for people. I am happy doing what I am doing. This is my responsibility.”

Alvina Lim is a Communication Officer at UNICEF Liberia

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