Ebola and COVID-19: Lessons learnt in reporting in Liberia

Siatta Scott Johnson working during the Ebola outbreak. Photo: Provided

It is important for journalists to reflect hope and survivalism in their reporting even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, said Liberian journalist Siatta Scott Johnson.

“We also have to encourage people to get tested as early as possible,” she said.

The 2014 west African Ebola outbreak taught her invaluable lessons that somewhat prepared her for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic as a journalist.

“The level of fear I had when I started reporting on ebola then is not here now. I know the coronavirus and Ebola are not the same but it gave me courage,” Scott Johnson said.

“When Ebola came, it was new to everyone. It was strange to us,” said Press Union of Liberia secretary-general Musa Kenneh.

Kenneh said the Ebola outbreak taught him the importance of taking precautionary measures such as wearing protective gear when reporting in the field during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Journalists need to make sure they have a mask and gloves. Don’t touch anyone,” Kenneh said.

Scott Johnson heads the Female Journalists Association of Liberia and said she has been mentoring young journalists who are inexperienced in covering infectious diseases. She gives them tips on how to disinfect their equipment and how to handle gloves.

“I tell them everyone is a suspect,” Scott Johnson said, adding that she stresses that they maintain physical distancing measures with people they may encounter while reporting.

While Scott Johnson may have gained insightful journalism experience covering the Ebola outbreak to use for the COVID-19 pandemic, cracking into the hearts of Liberians has been much harder.

“People are often in a state of denial,” Scott Johnson said adding that social media causes misinformation and disinformation to spread like wildfire in local Liberian communities.

While Liberia has over 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Scott Johnson said some locals believe that the country’s diet and climate makes them untouchable to the disease.

“People think that because they may eat a lot of spices our African immune systems are strong and that the virus can’t stand the heat,” she said.

Scott Johnson added that because Ebola was a regional outbreak, media reports were similar and people accepted them as they gave them the same message. However, the vastness of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unending and conflicting information to locals, Johnson said.

Liberian journalist Musa Kenneh. Photo: Provided

Kenneh said it is the responsibility of journalists to localise the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that communities would understand the veracity of the disease.

“People in rural counties are often uneducated and don’t speak much English,” he said, adding that their duty as Liberian journalists is not only to inform but to also educate.

48% of adult Liberians are illiterate, according to The World Bank. Scott Johnson said the west African country’s literacy rate is even more reason to break down COVID-19 reporting in a way that more Liberians can understand the pandemic.

“Not everyone may understand opinion and analysis [about COVID-19]”, Scott Johnson said, adding that after an introduction, she dives into fact from health authorities in a story.

Kenneh said the Liberian press has a strong role to play in freeing Liberia of any virus or disease with the help of relevant health authorities such as WHO.

“I want to commend Liberian journalists for the work they do, they are some of the lowest-paid people in the country but are truly some of our biggest heroes,” he said.

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