AJWS expands focus on Ebola prevention, education


When the magnitude of the Ebola crisis became clear in August, Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and her team contacted the 10 Liberian organizations AJWS supports to ask whether the agencies would like to change course from other social service activities to focus on the evolving emergency.

“We could alter your grant and increase the resources you have if you would like to become a part of a brigade of community health workers,” Messinger recalled offering the groups; she spoke on Nov. 18 with Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR, before a small audience at the home of AJWS board member Bill Resnick and his husband, Michael Stubbs.

All 10 organizations agreed, and in August AJWS launched a special emergency response fund with the goal of raising $1 million, of which more than $850,000 has already been collected. AJWS’ aim is to combat a climate of fear and misinformation by disseminating accurate information to communities across Liberia, where AJWS has collaborated with and funded grass-roots organizations since 2003.

Prior to the Ebola crisis, AJWS primarily directed its grants toward organizations assisting marginalized communities — first the efforts of activist Leymah Gbowee, whose work with women helped end a civil war in 2003 and eventually earned her a Nobel Peace Prize, and later a range of organizations working to end discrimination against women and to provide underprivileged populations access to natural resources.

However, the fast-moving devastation of the Ebola epidemic necessitated an immediate shift in focus, Messinger said. Organizations such as Mano River Women’s Peace Network, Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, Foundation for Community Initiatives and Bassa Women Development Association have changed course to assist in the national effort.

Where AJWS normally focuses primarily on defending the rights of women, LGBT people and other marginalized groups, it is now working with its partner organizations to spread information about Ebola prevention and treatment , with people reaching out house to house or broadcasting over  the radio and by targeting community leaders, including local ministers and imams. To increase the availability of accurate information, workers from these organizations are also training other Liberians to be community health advocates.

The Ebola crisis “is much more than a health problem or a public health problem,” Messenger said. “It is a system-wide challenge to a barely shaped and formed government.”

By example, Messenger quoted a recent exchange with AJWS’ only Liberian staff person, Dayugar Johnson: “Our kids are out of school without knowing when they will return. There is a partial closure for a lot of things: Most clinics and hospitals are still closed, schools at every level are closed, some business are closed, etc.

“The Ebola outbreak has placed a lot of strain on me and my family,” Johnson added. “We have had to change our way of life and daily routine to the point that our neighbors who were not taking the outbreak seriously felt somehow offended when I asked their children and them to stay at their house and stopped the children from playing together.”

Since the outbreak began, this sort of skepticism about the existence of Ebola, its source and its treatment has made it difficult for health groups to implement a consistent and deliberate response.

Imagine if you were part of a group in your congregation charged with washing the bodies of the deceased, Messinger pressed, “and all of a sudden there are basically, and sometimes actually, masked personnel from a government you don’t trust or from the West telling you that these practices must stop immediately.

“It is a constant challenge for all of us to really put ourselves in the minds of other people and think about how they see this,” Messinger continued. “You would have to have a big level of trust and analytic understanding to believe that you should, in fact, suspend everything you do.”

For that reason, Messinger said, she finds it difficult to believe in the accuracy of the tallies of confirmed Ebola cases and of the deceased. Some Liberians, she said, are probably continuing to practice their traditional burial customs despite being urged otherwise.

Nevertheless, Messinger cautioned against the hysteria American politicians and the media here have helped create. “Everything you read about this crisis needs to be taken as both a piece of the truth and not at all the whole truth,” Messinger warned.

“The scariest thing about this, both internationally and locally, is that day by day, every second story about Ebola is exactly the same as a story about HIV or AIDS in the 1980s,” she said, referring to the widespread dissemination of false information and pseudoscience.

“Everyone who asks you about Ebola spreading in this country, there is just a very simple thing to ask them: Have you gotten your flu shot? You can go to any drugstore in Los Angeles and get your flu shot today, and you should do that, because many, many, many more people in this country will die of the flu than will ever see Ebola,” Messinger said.

At closing, Rabbi Brous emphasized that there is a silver lining to the United States’ renewed focus on African health and politics. “There is a humanizing element here that is very powerful,” Brous said, “and we who care about global human rights issues and humanity outside of our daled amot — as we say, our immediate circles — should actually be taking advantage of the heightened sensitivity right now, and instead of using it to be fearful about the spread of Ebola locally, [use it] to awaken people to a sense of responsibility globally.” Messinger and AJWS know this to be true. 

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