Ebola Frontline: Social Media Is Raising Ebola Awareness in Sierra Leone

sierra leone cellphone
Locals in Sierra Leone rely on cellphone service and social networks to get Ebola news and information—and to find solidarity in the face of disaster. Siman Akam/Reuters

Another leading doctor in Sierra Leone, Dr. Modupeh Cole from Freetown’s Connaught Hospital, has died of Ebola. His death is a stark reminder of the danger that doctors and nurses across West Africa are facing during this unprecedented outbreak.

Many heard about Cole’s passing through their radios, which are everywhere, and have long been the key source of news in Sierra Leone. A significant number, though, found out through social media, which is quickly overtaking the radio as the de facto source for news. 

Social media has also been a unifying source of strength for many in Sierra Leone. There have been many support groups that formed online and some of the most popular groups on Whatsapp are now called “Kick Ebola out of Salone” (The term of endearment for their country) or “Ebola is Real!”

When first Cole tested positive for Ebola last week, a group of health care workers began a social media campaign with the goal of getting him access to the experimental drug ZMapp, which was given to the two American Ebola victims. The campaign made a splash online very quickly but by yesterday, Cole’s condition had worsened and the campaign had still not gained much international traction. By this morning, Cole had passed away.

Zmapp Campaign online A screenshot of the social media campaign to get the experimental Ebola drug ZMapp for Sierra Leonean Dr. Modupeh Cole. OneVillage Partners

In the face of all this tragedy, even token symbols of solidarity are powerful in Sierra Leone.  For example, at 2 AM on Sunday, August 10, many across the country woke up and took a warm bath with salt water. A text message chain, encouraging a nation-wide act of solidarity and to highlight the importance of good hygiene to fight Ebola, had been spreading across cell phones for days.

Yusuf Johnny in Kenema, was woken up by two calls at 1:30 AM encouraging him to join in, one from his home village and one from the capital Freetown. Everyone was participating, all around the country. Warm water was shared with neighbors who didn’t have access to water heaters, and whole households were woken up. The entire city was bustling for a few moments in the dead of the night.

“I haven’t seen the whole city move together like that since the war,” Yusuf told me.

Everyone I’ve talked to in Sierra Leone recently said they took part, or at least were woken up by their families and friends. Right now, in the locked down districts of Kenema and Kailahun, no one has made it this far in the outbreak without being personally affected. Massive shows of solidarity won’t stop Ebola, but for a disease that demands isolation of the sick, unity among the healthy is more powerful than ever.

Chad McCordic is a Community Projects Manager with Minneapolis, Minnesota-based non-profit OneVillage Partners.