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The Rev. Michael Gbenday gives an educational program about Ebola in Mende, the local language of the people of Moyollo village in Sierra Leone. Photo by Phileas Jusu, UMNS

Photo by Phileas Jusu, UMNS

The Rev. Michael Gbenday gives an educational program about Ebola in Mende, the local language of the people of Moyollo village in Sierra Leone.

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As a medical disaster, Ebola calls for new strategies

By Linda Bloom

Five months after Ebola began to escalate in West Africa, United Methodists have refined the tactics they hope will slow it to a halt: protection, education, support and prayer.

While Ebola’s impact has been as devastating as a hurricane or earthquake, the epidemic has required religious and humanitarian groups to look beyond traditional disaster response and devise new strategies.

United Methodists in Liberia, Sierra Leone and other countries organized themselves to respond both as a denomination and as interfaith and community partners.

Various forms of communication – text messages, radio broadcasts, drama and song – have been used to relay facts about Ebola. Church-related health centers and health care workers have worked on the front lines of treatment. Prevention information and sanitizing supplies have been carried to remote villages. Food and supplies have been left at the homes of infected families.

The Rev. Jack Amick, who heads the international disaster response unit of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, characterized the reaction to the Ebola crisis in this way:

“People are looking to humanitarian assistance agencies to put out the fire, when typically what humanitarian assistance agencies do is help people who have been burned by the fire or are running from the fire.”

To date, UMCOR has dispersed $401,138 in grants for the denomination’s Ebola response from the agency’s International Disaster Response fund.  As of Nov. 7, UMCOR had received $235,748.87 in specific donations for Ebola.

Defining the church’s role

The rapid spread of Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone prompted the denomination to consider its most effective role in containing the outbreak, said Dr. Olusimbo Ige, senior program manager for Imagine No Malaria and Global Health for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

Médecins San Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and the African governments are handling the existing Ebola cases, she noted, and the church cannot compete with larger organizations, such as the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control or UNICEF.

“The challenge right now is there are so many players on the field,” said Ige, who is an infectious disease specialist. “How best can we respond without duplicating our efforts and spreading ourselves thin?”

The answer to that question: Using the church’s connections and its position of respect to help support and educate people about Ebola at the community level.

The United Methodist response has been coordinated with West African church leaders and the health boards of the denomination’s conferences in Liberia, Sierra Leone and even Cote d’Ivoire. The church’s health facilities, missionaries and other church agencies are also involved.

Weekly telephone calls that include the bishop, health board chair and health coordinator for each conference have helped United Methodists in Liberia and Sierra Leone set Ebola-related priorities and work through the grant process, Ige said.

A Nov.7 joint letter on Ebola from the Council of Bishops and Board of Global Ministries noted the collaborative work with West Africa episcopal leaders and health boards pointed to the church’s “front-line opportunity and responsibility for palliative and preventive service” in response to the Ebola crisis.

“The United Methodists of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are strongly committed to efforts with their neighbors of all faiths to safely confront and control Ebola,” the letter said. “They invited their fellow Methodists around the world to join in this essential ministry of compassion and healing. This is an international and interfaith cause.”

Global Ministries is placing three of its veteran missionaries – Mary Randall ZigbuoHelen Roberts-Evans and Priscilla Jaiah –  on special assignment for the next six months to respond to the Ebola emergency. The trio, who received a special blessing at the board’s New York headquarters, left Nov. 6 for Liberia.

Two missionaries from Liberia --Victor Taryor, the hospital administrator, and Dr. Albert Willicor, chief medical officer -- have remained at the United Methodist Ganta Hospital throughout the Ebola crisis.

Beatrice Mamawah Gbanga, a missionary based in Sierra Leone, continues to lead Ebola response efforts there in her role as the conference’s medical coordinator.

Supporting the health boards

Through activity-focused grants, UMCOR is “doing what we can” to support the work of the health boards and various partners, Amick said.

“The initial grants were responses to requests from the health boards to provide personal protective equipment that was not available in country,” he explained. “For the most part, the need to ship things in, relative to Ebola, has diminished.”

What has not diminished is the need to educate a fearful population about Ebola to slow the spread of the disease. The church has become a major proponent of the use of education as a prevention method.

Thanks to donations to the International Disaster Response Advance, UMCOR is funding the grants more quickly, Amick said. Money can be distributed within 10 days to two weeks after a grant proposal is submitted if the paperwork is in order.

As of Sept. 29, UMCOR grants had been used to by the church’s health boards to:

  • Distribute 400 personal protection kits and provide funds for gloves and gowns at United Methodist health facilities in Liberia.
  • Distribute 400 personal protection kits, along with other supplies, to United Methodist health facilities; construct a holding unit at Mercy Hospital; train 200 health workers about Ebola and provide public awareness messages to impacted communities in Sierra Leone.
  • Implement an Ebola public awareness campaign and purchase supplies for United Methodist health facilities in Cote d’Ivoire.

In addition, GlobalMedic used an UMCOR grant to distribute 38,000 face masks, 3,800 protective suits and 60,000 pairs of gloves in Sierra Leone and Liberia, along with essential medicines and five pop-up tents for use as holding units in each country.

ACT Alliance in Liberia provided funding to support training for 70 trainers on Ebola awareness and to hold prevention workshops for 960 participants.

Other ways to support

Pending grant proposals address the education of communities on how to support children orphaned because of Ebola. Humanitarian food distribution is another need. “We’re looking at a couple of possibilities for that,” Amick said. “It’s best for the economy, best for the recovery of the country, if they can buy food locally.”

Recently, the Liberian church received about $20,000 from United Methodist Discipleship Ministries, formerly the Board of Discipleship, and the United Methodist Church in Germany. The money is intended to address the acute food insecurity that is now facing every Liberian, said the Rev. George Wilson, chairperson of the church’s anti-Ebola task force.

Each district superintendent was expected to receive $500 by Nov. 10 to buy food items to distribute to church members. Church staff and others also will receive food assistance.

“We are aware of the enormous role our global partners are playing in Liberia as the Ebola virus continues to ravage our country,” Wilson said during a recent meeting of the task force.

Another role for the global church is to work to prevent “future recurrences” of such infectious disease epidemics, says the denomination’s social justice agency.

A Nov. 10 statement from the United Methodist Boar of Church and Society emphasized the need to eliminate underlying issues -- such as adequate health care, better infrastructure and debt relief – that helped fuel the current Ebola crisis.

“We encourage United Methodists to advocate in their national and regional governing bodies for significant funding for the fight against Ebola,” the statement said. “Such advocacy must also ensure that funding remains robust for other ongoing global health and development efforts.”

 Donate to UMCOR International Disaster Response, Advance #982450.

Julu Swen, a Liberian communicator, contributed to this story. Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe or contact her at (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org