Liberia was the epicenter of a high-profile Ebola outbreak in 2014-15, which led to more than 10,000 deaths in West Africa. But for all the devastation the illness caused, it could have been worse without an innovative, volunteer-based outreach program Liberia’s government deployed in late 2014.
Now, a study co-authored by an MIT professor shows how much that program, consisting of door-to-door canvassing by community volunteers, spread valuable information and changed public practices during the epidemic. The findings also demonstrate how countries with minimal resources can both fight back against epidemics and gain public trust in difficult circumstances.
“Mediated [volunteer-based] government outreach had a positive impact on all of the [health] outcomes we measured,” says Lily Tsai, a professor of political science at MIT and co-author of a new paper detailing the study’s findings. “People knew more [about Ebola], had a more factual understanding of the epidemic, and were more willing to comply with government control measures. And downstream, they’re more likely to trust government institutions.”
Indeed, after talking to canvassers, residents of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, were 15 percentage points more supportive of disease control policies, 10 percentage points less likely to violate a ban on public gatherings (to limit the spread of Ebola), 26 percentage points more likely to support victims’ burials by government workers, and 9 percentage points more likely to trust Liberia’s Ministry of Health, among other outcomes. They were also 10 percentage points more likely to use hand sanitizer.
Intriguingly, the volunteer-based outreach program succeeded after an earlier 2014 campaign, using Ministry of Health staff, was abandoned, having been “met with disbelief and outright violence,” as the new paper states.