Here is What Working the Ebola Frontline Taught Us About Fighting the Coronavirus Pandemic | Opinion

Four months – that's the time it has taken for the coronavirus known as COVID 19 to become a global pandemic, change the face of global health and disrupt the daily lives of people around the world.

In a matter of weeks, we have witnessed confirmed cases of COVID-19 skyrocket and the economy take an unprecedented hit. We have seen life upended as businesses and schools close. We have seen how wildly unprepared governments and the global community are to respond to the magnitude of this pandemic. And just this week, the United Nations Secretary General, has asked for $2 billion to help poor countries combat the virus. Urgent financial investments are critical in this fight, but we need more than just money to control this pandemic.

Having spent my career as a physician and global health practitioner working with humanitarian organizations, there is much we can learn now from responses to previous outbreaks and health emergencies—most of which hit fragile and crisis-affected countries the hardest.

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), began in 2018 and has infected more than 3,300 people over the last 18 months. Ebola was exacerbated by a weak health system and decades of conflict, the response required a level of planning and coordination that is urgently needed now.

While COVID-19 is not Ebola, here are the five lessons from that response that can—and must—be applied in our current efforts.

  1. Build trustDuring the peak of the Ebola outbreak, communities and people were largely kept in the dark with minimal access to information about the disease, prevention, or treatment. Coupled with existing mistrust of the government and institutions—including the United Nations - misinformation was rampant and allowedthe disease to spread further.Unfortunately, we have already seen similar failures in COVID-19 responses, with governments sharing mixed messages which undermine public trust. An effective response requires credible sources including public health experts to serve as spokespeople providing evidence-based messages and clear guidance.Communications must also consider the local context. A one-size fits all approach does not work with a worldwide pandemic as people access information in many ways. For example, within fragile and conflict settings and low-income communities, authorities need to share information using accessible platforms and take into consideration local customs and culture.

2. Integrate mental health care and other health needs into the response

In the DRC, Ebola survivors and their families faced social isolation and even violence -- a pattern we are seeing today with racially-motivated attacks.

With more than 300 million children already out of school, millions of adults working from home or facing economic hardship, mental health has to be factor into our response. From Syria and Yemen to the DRC, I have witnessed the toll emergencies can have on mental health where fear, anxiety, and stigma become part of daily life.

3. Recognize that impacts will be felt differently by women

Crises do not impact men and women the same way. Women often take on caretaking roles and make up the majority of the global healthcare workforce leaving them disproportionately exposed.

We've seen that disease outbreaks also lead to increased violence for women and children. A rapid assessment from CARE in China showed that violence increased during COVID-19. Specialized protection programming should be included alongside an outbreak response. For example, healthcare workers and first responders can be trained to identify signs of intimate partner violence and funding should be set aside for programs that focus on this.

4. Strengthen multilateral coordination

Nationalism will not cut it in a global pandemic. We need governments, multilateral organizations like the WHO, researchers, the private sector, and NGOs to share information, expertise and collectively respond to this pandemic. The meeting of the G-20 this week on COVID-19 is a good first step.

As money gets prioritized, fast and flexible funding is needed to not only deploy responsive solutions to COVID-19, but to also ensure that existing life-saving programs do not grind to halt, triggering further humanitarian disaster. Failed cooperation in the DRC meant more lives lost to Ebola, and the risks are the same here.

5. Invest in preparedness

The Ebola outbreak took over a year to contain in large part due to a weak health system. In the current crisis, high income countries and philanthropies must act quickly to help prevent the spread in low-income countries where health systems are far weaker and vulnerable populations like refugees will be hit the hardest. Testing should be quickly expanded and accessible to everybody who needs one no matter where they live.

Four months ago, COVID19 didn't even have a name, but as this pandemic continues to grow and disrupt millions of lives, our response needs to factor in what has and hasn't worked in the past. We have the responsibility to ensure four months from now we are on our way to turning the tide against this global threat.

Dr. Mesfin Teklu Tessema is the Head of the Health Unit at the International Rescue Committee, and IRC's senior leader in Health. He has more than 25 years of experience in the areas of public health, nutrition, international development and humanitarian affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.