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A mayor’s secret weapon in the fight against Ebola: community leaders

By Coco McCabe
Mayor Mvogo in her office in Monrovia, Liberia. Mvogo was appointed Mayor the same month the Ebola outbreak hit Liberia in 2015. Photo: Jane Hahn / Oxfam America

As the deadly virus gripped Monrovia, Mayor Clara Doe Mvogo turned to local leaders to marshal support for a community-wide awareness campaign. Armed with knowledge, residents faced their fears, confronted the disease, and beat it back.

The day we meet the mayor of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, she is dressed in a long, traditional skirt with a head wrap adding to her elegance—fine attire for a woman conducting the city’s business from behind a massive desk in the air-conditioned coolness of an office paneled in glistening dark wood.

But that’s not where you’ll always find Clara Doe Mvogo. And you certainly won’t find her just sitting: That practice is not part of the 69-year-old mayor’s repertoire.

When we arrive the next morning, it takes a moment to recognize her. Mvogo is wearing jeans and a t-shirt, the uniform she favored during Monrovia’s long, hard battle with the deadly Ebola outbreak that terrorized the capital between 2014 and 2015. Now, as then, she’s ready to hit the road to see for herself what’s happening in her sprawling city of 1.5 million people. Her mission this day is to inspect a series of public toilets her administration is building in some of Monrovia’s poorest and most densely populated neighborhoods.

“I have to sign off on these projects,” she says. “I don’t want to just look at pictures. I want to physically see what I will be signing off on.”

That no-nonsense approach is a hallmark of Mvogo’s mayoral style, fueled by her drive for results and her belief in practical solutions. And it was that combination of action and faith that simple answers could be found that helped Mvogo work with leaders and volunteers across the city on a strategy that eventually began to loosen the stranglehold Ebola had on Monrovia.


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‘Scared like hell’

What was her first reaction when she learned the virus had hit the city?

“Scared like hell,” says Mvogo, who worked for years as a medical technologist in the US and also for Abbott Laboratories for several years doing clinical trials for laboratory instruments. “Because I have a medical background I know what an epidemic can do in a closed and confined area.”

And she wasn’t alone in her fear. Though her alarm came from knowledge, the panic that gripped the city was fed by a lack of understanding about the disease. And the public discourse was only making matters worse.

“We had people in our legislature who denied the existence of Ebola on the radio,” says Mvogo, sounding frustrated, still, by that deadly refusal to accept reality. By the time it was over, the outbreak had killed 4,809 people in Liberia alone, many of them in Montserrado County where the capital is located.

As co-chair of Montserrado’s incident management system, which met weekly to monitor progress against the creep of the epidemic, Mvogo realized a new tactic was needed.

“We had to put the Liberian twist to it and say ‘back off’,” recalls the mayor. “You’re dealing with people who most of them can’t read or write. You’re dealing with people who are scared, and when you get scared you get angry.”

But as soon as people were educated—as soon as they understood that diagnosis wasn’t necessarily a death knell and that reporting the disease could help eradicate it—attitudes began to change.

So that became her goal: to get the citizens of Monrovia to face Ebola and take action. For help, Mvogo turned to Monrovia’s hundreds of local leaders, visiting with representatives in each of the city’s locales to let them know she was anxious to work with them.

“There were so many stigmas around Ebola,” says Mvogo. “You had to go to the grassroots people and say, ‘help me get the word out.’”

Mayor Mvogo in her office in Monrovia, Liberia. Photo: Jane Hahn / Oxfam America

Operation Stop Ebola

With support from UNICEF, Mvogo’s administration invited more than 100 elected community leaders to city hall for two days of training. It focused on four issues: (1) acknowledgement that the dreaded disease was in their city; (2) establishing a clear understanding of Ebola’s symptoms; (3) communicating the steps people needed to take to report those suspected of having the virus; and (4) how to support community members returning to their homes after release from Ebola treatment units or observation centers.

“Then we went into each and every community and trained each of the block leaders,” says Mvogo. All told, 236 community leaders and 594 block leaders received training before fanning out to spread the word.

Dubbed “Operation Stop Ebola,” the all-out effort soon began to show results, says Mvogo, even in one particularly intractable community—Zuma town, the last epicenter of the outbreak—where she stationed herself “like a general”  for three days, working with block leaders, UNICEF volunteers, and Ministry of Health community workers.

“In less than a month’s time, the numbers started going down noticeably,” says Mvogo. “There is a direct connection with what we were doing at the grass [roots] level with getting rid of Ebola...It was community-based awareness, training and sensitization—that’s how we got rid of Ebola in Liberia. It wasn’t only the government or the international community. It was with the support of community leaders.”

And a lot of it had to do with the trust people have in those they have chosen to lead them: their elected community and block leaders.

“It was extremely effective because people were willing to listen to their community leaders,”Mvogo says.

The approach, she adds, could be a model for other epidemics, and it reflects a basic truth about emergency response that Oxfam is keen to promote: Local people know what’s best for their communities. Instead of swooping in with big ideas that may not work, the international community needs to follow the lead of local leaders who really understand their communities. In big emergencies, international support may be needed—for monitoring the quality of the response, among other  things, she says—but  it’s the job of governments to guide emergency response, and local organizations have an important role to play in making sure things work.

“I don’t think we should always wait for the international community to do everything,” says Mvogo. “We should be prepared to help ourselves.”

Mayor Clara Doe Mvogo's car is directed by police officers in Monrovia, Liberia Photo: Jane Hahn / Oxfam America

Solutions that work in Monrovia

Driving through the poor and tightly packed neighborhoods of Monrovia with Mvogo, it’s clear that she’s under no illusions about what her city needs and how best to make it happen given the realities of limited and sometimes faltering infrastructure. Cleanliness and safety are Mvogo’s two top priorities, and today, she’s determined to ensure that the public toilets under construction are built to last.

That’s why she’s distressed to learn that a submersible pump was proposed as a back-up to the water supply from the city main. What if the pump breaks down? What if the water stops flowing through the main, as often happens? Clogged toilets, unworkable sinks, and misery for the residents will follow in quick order—exactly what people don’t need as they strive to maintain good hygiene and vigorous hand-washing in the wake of the Ebola crisis.

No, she says. Scrap that system and spend the money on restoring a more reliable hand pump that’s connected to a well right there. And then create a handful of much-needed jobs by hiring carriers to port the water to barrels near the toilets where people can scoop it with buckets and flush manually whenever the city water supply is not available.

“We have to be practical,” says Mvogo. “For this community, let’s get real.”

Working two phones from the back seat (“I’m constantly working in the car. It’s the only place I get some much-needed quiet time,” says the mayor), Mvogo is in and out of her chauffeured SUV all morning. Stopping at another bank of toilets under construction, she strides through the neighborhood, ducking under clothes lines, to make sure the passage for the truck that will empty the septic system is wide enough to get through. She’s pleased to see that it is.

In Slipway, one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods,  Mvogo hops out of her car a final time. Here, she learns that people were recently living in the concrete building that houses the toilets, now unused. To relieve themselves, families rely on a bank of corrugated metal shacks perched over the Du River behind their homes. The wastes drop right into the water. Dark stains, about 18 inches high, circle many of their dwellings: Every time it rains for several days in a row, the river floods, sloshing into their homes.

As Mvogo studies the situation, and thinks about a solution—a ditch to drain the flood water would be a good start, she says—a young man standing nearby smiles broadly at the scene.

“I love the mayor,” he says. “She works hard.”

 

Right now less than 2 percent of annual humanitarian assistance is used to support local humanitarian organizations in emergencies. It’s time to put more aid resources and decision-making where they should be: in the hands of local humanitarians in countries affected by disaster, conflict, or other crisis.

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This story is part of an Oxfam series that highlights local humanitarians who are leading disaster prevention and response in their countries – working to ensure communities are protected and empowered in disasters, conflict or other crisis. Though Oxfam may not fund every project or organization featured in the series, Oxfam stands in solidarity with all those around the world working to right the wrong of poverty.  

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