Here’s how the Ebola outbreak shaped citizens’ opinions of Liberia’s government

Graph: Who was effective in fight against Ebola?

  Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

This post is part of our Friday Afrobarometer series, which highlights findings from the Pan-African, nonpartisan research network that conducts public-attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa.

Liberia was finally declared Ebola-free a year ago this month. The 2013-2015 outbreak wreaked havoc on the lives of thousands of Liberians, infecting at least 10,675 and killing 4,809. Many more were affected: 4 in 10 Liberians reported having a relative or close friend die during the outbreak.

During Liberia’s epidemic, analysts pointed to multiple obstacles blocking effective response: inadequate health facilities and resources, citizens’ mistrust of government, and the slow international response. There were questions about whether the Ebola outbreak would have severe consequences for Liberia’s already embattled government, leaving citizens even more distrustful of government and its ability to protect and provide for them.

News articles and research showed a healthy criticism by citizens of the Liberian government’s response to Ebola, but it was unclear whether these opinions reflected the opinions of the average citizen in Liberia and whether they would sustain as the epidemic waned.

Afrobarometer, a pan-African nonpartisan research network, conducted a nationwide survey in Liberia near the end of the outbreak, in May 2015. They interviewed 1,200 Liberian adults to learn their opinions on government and the economy and their experiences navigating the Ebola epidemic. The findings of the survey are published in a new report, “Liberians on Ebola: Foreign aid most effective, but government performed well, is now better prepared.”

The Afrobarometer report teaches us how much the outbreak affected Liberians’ daily lives. For example, more than three-quarters of Liberians went without medicine or medical care at least once during the height of the outbreak. During the epidemic, many Liberians could not participate in social and communal events (89 percent), attend school (86 percent) or engage in income-generating activities (86 percent).

What were Liberians’ opinions about their government and government services? Fewer Liberians evaluated Liberian public hospitals and clinics as effective in providing care for Ebola victims (49 percent) when compared to treatment facilities run by international organizations (85 percent) and local nongovernmental organizations (73 percent).

Overall, most Liberians rated their national government (66 percent) and local governments (60 percent) as effective in controlling the epidemic. Perhaps more important going forward, two-thirds of Liberians said they were “very” or “somewhat” confident that their government has taken steps to be better prepared to fight a future Ebola outbreak. These figures are considerably high given the questions raised about whether the epidemic might weaken the Liberian state.

Another, unrelated research study also offers some optimism for the public health sector in Liberia. Repeat surveys with a sample of Liberian adults in the capital city Monrovia — conducted during the outbreak and then twice more after the outbreak — show that despite a significant decline in seeking health services during the crisis, health care utilization rebounded quickly after the crisis ended.