By Jon Hirst with Randy Rosso
Ebola has claimed the lives of nearly 7,000 people, while infecting more than 16,000 people primarily in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Liberia is by far the country that has been hit worst by Ebola, with more than 4,000 deaths as of November 25th. African governments, the UN, an array of organizations, companies, churches, and many others all have volunteered to help with this crisis.
How did we get here?
Ebola is believed to have started from fruit bats in Guinea, which possibly carry the Ebola virus naturally. The first know victims of the Ebola outbreak were from the Meliandou village in Guinea. This spread very slowly at first but was sparked with the death of a traditional healer in Sierra Leone. Traditional burial rituals include washing, touching, and kissing of the body which led to as many as 365 deaths of participants from surrounding areas, according to the World Health Organization.
There have been two primary reasons that the Ebola outbreak has not been able to be contained, especially in Liberia: traditional beliefs and lack of resources.
Liberia has an astonishingly low number of physicians for how many people they have. A country with a population well over 4 million has a mere 0.0104 physicians per 1,000 Liberia people. Let me put these in terms that make a little more sense. For every 96,154 people there is only 1 physician! To put it even more in perspective, in the US there is 1 physician for every 408 people.
Additionally, Liberia was one of poorest and most devastated countries in the region well before the Ebola outbreak even started. This is highly attributable to two civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that caused around 500,000 deaths and a lot of displaced people. This has proved to be a major obstacle in getting resources to the infected people, and they have had to rely heavily on outside support and aid.
As stated earlier, traditional beliefs have also been primary contributors to the Ebola infection cycle. 42.5% of Liberians adhere to traditional religions. Because of this, they tend to believe that not following burial customs will cause spirits to get upset and bring trouble upon them, which motivates them to continue in their ways.
Also, in some traditional religions it is believed that even alerting people of an illness is a curse and can cause disease. This, along with a fear of healthcare systems and their treatment centers, causes them to avoid getting help when they start to experience symptoms. Instead, they seek out traditional healers which are supposed to find the evil spirits causing the disease and fight against them. Then when the infected person dies, it reinforces the belief that evil forces are at work and are powerful.
It’s a continuous cycle and can only be helped through further education of the people, an increase in both financial and medical resources, prayer, and a response from the Church.
A focus for the Church could be on shining the light of Jesus among the darkness of this outbreak. Jesus releases people from fear; fear of curses, fear of evil spirits, and fear of the enemy. If the Church could use this as a chance to make Him known, it could not only help end the horrific tragedy at hand, but also bring multitudes of people closer to accepting Jesus into their heart and lives. As the American Church, having compassion, praying, and showing repentance toward the Liberian people is an effective responsive as well. In terms of the local Church in Liberia and surrounding West Africa countries, providing resources, encouragement, and openness for people to trust Jesus to protect them from whatever they may be afraid of concerning the burial customs. Together, the Global Church everywhere can truly make a difference in not only the spiritual lives of the Liberians, but also in the battle against Ebola.
For more information on how the Church can respond to this disaster plaguing West Africa, please visit http://www.gmi.org/services/missiographics/library/breaking-ebola-cycle.