Countering conspiracies: The need for accurate information and practical assistance in fighting COVID-19

It wasn’t long after the inaugural Amujae Leadership Forum that the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Liberia. Amujae Leader Cornelia Kruah-Togba knew that swift action would be an important factor in battling the spread of the virus and the rumors surrounding it, and moved straight to working on preventative measures: “We’d had very high death rates in my district from Ebola, so we knew that it would be important to work quickly to stop the spread.”

As an experienced public servant, Cornelia’s mitigation work began with using her expertise to form a task force and define a plan to implement practical measures. Initially, this involved identifying major intersections where people regularly gathered, and installing handwashing stations. This included areas where families would visit on a daily basis to collect water using hand pumps and providing buckets and other sanitary items. Additionally, they arranged a rota to bring these items inside at night to avoid theft.

It was also important to share accurate information about COVID-19 and how it can spread within communities. Misinformation about the virus is rife across Africa, with multiple conspiracy theories about the source of the outbreak, and unproven—sometimes dangerous—suggested treatments spreading quickly through social media and other channels, in a similar way that inaccurate claims about Ebola spread several years ago. A swift countering of false claims that COVID-19 was created by ‘big pharma’ to hold governments to ransom for a vaccine, and fake ‘treatments’ including inhaling steam or drinking alcohol, required coordinated public information campaigns to encourage people to adhere to guidelines designed to keep them safe.

“We’ve been working on general awareness campaigns about the virus—there are people who believe that this is a government conspiracy to elicit international aid, so there has been a lot to do to help people realize that this is a genuine threat and that they should act accordingly.”

Cornelia also notes that this is the first lockdown people have experienced in Liberia in recent times, so there was little knowledge of the problems that could arise for some communities as a result. The lockdown is preventing some people from being able to conduct their business and earn money in the usual ways, putting them at risk of hunger. And so, in addition to the awareness and sanitization campaigns, Cornelia has also been working to coordinate food supplies for vulnerable families and individuals.

As a second-year law student, the lockdown has paused Cornelia’s studies for now. While waiting for the university to reopen, she has been able to reflect on the Forum she attended in early March, and how it is informing the work she is now leading.

“The session on leading during a crisis was particularly helpful—especially President Sirleaf’s comments about staying calm amid uncertainty. These words are really helping to build my confidence as we move through this new crisis, giving me the courage to lead and inspire others who may be frightened at this time and are unsure of how to respond.”

Looking to the future, Cornelia hopes to be able to maintain connections with other Amujae Leaders and continue to learn from their experiences. Additionally, she hopes to learn more from the cohort about how to access funding for local relief programs during times when budgets are constrained.

Learn more about Cornelia and her work here.

The Amujae Initiative is a program of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development. Learn more about the Center here.

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