When the Ebola crisis hit West Africa in 2015, one of the first responses was to build large field hospitals to treat the rapidly growing number of Ebola patients. As Paul Richards explains, “These were seen as the safest option. But they were shunned by families, because so few patients came out alive.” Aid workers vocally opposed local customs like burial rituals that contributed to the spread of the virus, which caused tension with communities. Ebola-affected communities insisted that some of their methods had proven effective in lowering case numbers before outside help arrived. When government and aid agencies came in and delivered their own messages, locals felt that their expertise had been ignored. Distrust spread, as did a sense that the response pitted local knowledge against global experts. And the virus continued to spread.
The Ebola response would have saved more lives, more quickly, had responders approached affected communities with a willingness to work cooperatively alongside them. Responders had a great deal of essential expertise to contribute to stopping Ebola – but to address the crisis they also needed to listen to what was working already within communities, what wasn’t, and what people who were most affected said they needed.
The same is true now. Today there are more than 1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide. The virus has spread to every country and territory in the world, leaving virtually no one unaffected. The pandemic is exacerbating inequities in employment, education, access to healthcare and food, and workers’ rights even as it raises new challenges. Everyone is looking for answers to address their needs and anxieties while also collectively realizing that this pandemic and our responses to it will irrevocably shape the future.
It would be easy for us in the public sector to turn inwards for solutions on how to respond effectively to the pandemic and its aftermath. It’s comfortable to focus on perspectives from our own teams when we feel a heightened sense of urgency, and decisions must be made on a dime. However, it would be a mistake not to consider input from the communities we serve – alongside expert knowledge – when determining how we support them through this crisis.
COVID-19 affects everyone on earth, and it won’t be possible to craft equitable responses that meet people’s needs around the globe unless we listen to what would work best to address those challenges and support homegrown solutions that are already working. Effective communication of public health information, for instance, is central to controlling the spread of COVID-19. By listening to communities, we can better understand what communication methods work for them and can do a better job getting those messages across in a way that resonates with diverse communities. And to face the looming economic crisis that COVID-19 is precipitating, we will need to engage in real dialogue with people about their priorities and the way they want to see society rebuilt.
In devastating, rapidly changing crises such as this one, we can’t afford not to listen to communities when determining our response. While collecting and using feedback may not seem like a priority in the midst of a crisis, it is both vital and feasible, and it can save valuable time and money. There is no doubt that the world will look different after this crisis is over. Everything from how people work and interact to how governments provide for their citizens will be fundamentally altered, and citizen input must play a fundamental role in shaping this new future.
With this in mind, Feedback Labs will be continuing to share writing, resources, and ideas that focus on how listening can drive an effective and equitable response to COVID-19. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you. If you want to share stories, ask questions, or are seeking support please reach out at [email protected].
Britt is the CEO of Feedback Labs, where she leads a team working to change the norms in aid, philanthropy, non-profits, and government to be more responsive to the people they aim to help. Before joining Feedback Labs, she led GlobalGiving’s Disaster Recovery Network and managed a multi-million dollar portfolio of small grants to support local communities affected by natural disasters and humanitarian crises.