A colleague of mine named Beate Ebert started a Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) called Commit and Act in Sierra Leone. They run a psychosocial center in Bo, a city in the south of Sierra Leone, led by a local counselor, Hannah Bockarie. Bo is a high risk area of the Ebola epidemic, where some of the first cases showed up. One reason that the disease is so deadly is that it creates a perfect storm of cultural confusion. Here is how Beate described it to me in a recent email message.
Ebola mostly spreads because of local habits like washing and kissing dead bodies. People don’t get the information needed. They avoid hospitals as most people with Ebola die there. Doctors and nurses look like monsters in their prevention suits when they come to villages. The inhabitants are scared and think the health workers bring the disease. People circulate text messages that stimulate fear and also lead to avoiding treatment, like not contacting strangers.
The public health practices that can limit the spread of the Ebola virus are known, but getting people to adopt new practices—even when it is a matter of life and death—is not easy. Can evolutionary science help? Beate thinks that it can and her local team is bravely working to use a method of cultural change being developed at the Evolution Institute to help stem the Ebola epidemic where previous efforts have failed.
The method is called PROSOCIAL and is designed to improve the efficacy of any group whose members must work together to achieve common goals. It helps to create a strong sense of group identity and clarifies both core values and obstacles that prevent a group from moving in its valued direction. It also helps to create a social environment that is maximally favorable for cooperation and guards against behaviors that undermine the goals of the group.
PROSOCIAL is a new method, still under development, and the Commit and Act team in Sierra Leone is starting to use it in their regular work, which is to bring psychotherapeutic support to traumatized people in areas of conflict. This means that they have a network of facilitators working in communities already in place that can be used to address the Ebola epidemic. Here is a progress report from Commit and Act’s facebook page:
We can hardly post as quickly as Hannah is training people how to prevent Ebola. She went through the PROSOCIAL process … again today, with another 300 people in Bo, close to our center. Our wonderful, courageous Commit and Act women’s group and the families of the desert flower project we are supporting to prevent female gender circumcision of the girls were present too. Due to Hannah´s successful efforts, Commit and Act has been identified as the leading agency in the district by the District Health Management Team to give psychosocial support to the families affected by Ebola and to support medical teams etc. As there is hardly any additional funding available for this, please donate every amount possible to Commit and Act and mark it with the purpose “Ebola”, then we will use it for that. Thank you so much!
I have donated and urge everyone who reads this post to contribute what they can. Here is the link to Commit and Act’s donation page. It would be hard to imagine a more noble and worthy cause to support, especially by those who are trying to develop a science of intentional change.