Social anthropologist Syna Ouattara in West Africa 2015 during the Ebola outbreak.
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) now has been declared a pandemic, and it is extremely important that accurate information is disseminated. So says social anthropologist Syna Ouattara, at the Gothenburg Research Institute, GRI. Syna Ouattara has done years of research in Ebolaridden areas West Africa and sees parallels to today’s situation.
When Ebola ravaged West Africa in 2015, Syna Ouattara PhD in social anthropology at the University of Gothenburg, worked for the World Health Organization, WHO, to mobilize society.
When the pandemic is now a fact, and the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is rapidly spreading in Sweden and the rest of the world, he recognizes several of the reactions:
“What is the cause? What can we do to protect ourselves? What should we do? These are the questions we humans ask ourselves when a virus begins to spread in our vicinity,” he says, and continues:
“When the virus began to spread in China, the same type of rumors spread, and it was difficult to mobilize the public to fight the virus spread together. There is a distrust among many.”
High trust gives an advantage
If you look at a country like Sweden, trust in authorities and institutions is generally high, notes Syna Ouattara. For example, in a survey that Novus made on behalf of the Swedish National TV, about half of the 1001 respondents stated that they feel they have very or quite high confidence in the Public Health Authority.
This can give Sweden an advantage in terms of the possibility of handling the virus, he believes:
“My experience in a virus outbreak is that it is impossible to overestimate the importance of people trusting the person who gives information and who comes and talk to them. The fact that Sweden is more organized and that people here have greater confidence in the authorities means an advantage in this situation.”
He thinks it might be crucial for an authority to mobilize people that people trust, and listen to, if these are to be successful in disseminating the correct information in a threatening situation:
“These people have to be the ones responsible of spreading information. Otherwise, there is a great risk that people simply do not believe in what they say.”
Although ebola is far more deadly than the new corona virus, Syna Ouattara believes that there are several parallels:
“The fear is the same,” he says.
In West Africa, that fear have led to difficulties for healthcare professionals who have been discouraged, and in some cases attacked. According to Syna Ouattara, this is partly because there is a tradition that strangers should not take care of the sick.
“The relief workers come as strangers, which means that people protect their villages from what they see as threatening. We could see similar things in China, where people in some cases barricaded themselves; no one was allowed to enter.”
Could something similar happen in Sweden?
“It isn´t entirely unlikely, says Syna Ouattara. Fear can have a huge impact on people, and if you are uncertain, you do not want to take any chances, even if this can result in exaggerated reactions that have no real effect.”
Something Syna Ouattara has seen in his work is that suspicion of others is a common reaction to an epidemic, but this is something that can instead lead to difficulties in creating a common mobilization against the spread of infection:
“Although it can be a challenge – Calmness and factuality is important.”