This week, President Obama announced that 3,000 American military personnel would be sent to West Africa—along with funding for new medical facilities—to assist in the fight against Ebola. So far, the outbreak of the deadly virus, which the president said was “spiraling out of control,” has killed at least 2,400 people, but could infect thousands more as medical outlets in the region struggle to accommodate all of those who are suffering.
We recently spoke with Mike Mantel, the CEO of Living Water International, a Christian aid organization that has been working to provide clean water to Liberia for more than 10 years and Sierra Leone for more than seven. The group recently launched Water.cc/ebola to provide updates about the crisis and show how people can help.
Mantel explained how the virus has spread so quickly, why the need for clean water is so great and how the local church is assisting in the fight against Ebla.
How has this Ebola outbreak been so different from other health issues your teams have encountered in the region?
Our concern has been helping communities access water, but also to ensure that their water remains safe so that it is clean and potable—that it doesn’t adversely impact health.
Ebola has taken the health situation to a new level. Really, the first line of defense against Ebola is hygiene and sanitation to wash off the virus if you come in contact with Ebola. So it’s not just a situation where people are in an unsanitary environment, but the virus clings to people’s hands and to fabric. And to address that, people need water. They need chlorine, and they need to engage differently in their interpersonal interaction.
The spread of the virus seems to have taken the international community somewhat by surprise. What are some of the unexpected challenges now facing both aid organizations and government agencies as they’re fighting the spread of Ebola?
You’re absolutely right, it’s taken a lot of people by surprise. Six months ago I remember hearing in the press some handful of known cases. And the response was uncertain.
The local community health organizations, faith community health organizations, the active international NGOs thought that the virus could be contained. People continued to engage in their daily lives and their cultural practices: The dead were washed and cared for prior to burial; people certainly embraced one another and met together. There was very little education out about what Ebola is and how it impacts us.
As the virus gets contracted and brought to new areas, that’s when the media really picks up the news, and it comes to the front page for a short while. And even now there’s not enough health facilities to be able to quarantine and meet the needs of those suffering from the virus, let alone take care of basic health issues. I was very excited to see that the United States government is stepping up and helping build some additional health centers to be able to address people that have the virus.
Part of your organization’s strategy is to partner with local churches. What does that partnership look like?
Since Ebola has become such a critical issue, we continue to work with the churches, but we’ve shifted our strategy, because we could no longer really gather in large groups in infected areas.
We’ve shifted some of our funding and have begun to attract new funding to go to the radio with messages about hope, Ebola, hygiene and water. We’ve shifted in our resources—rather than having primarily verbal interaction, [we’re using] print materials and distribute materials along with the government and other organizations.
We continue to distribute things like the Jesus film. We continue to distribute Sunday School materials. But it’s really gone more to an arms-length engagement with radio and literature in the infected areas. And where Ebola is not yet affecting communities, we’re trying to get out ahead and educate church leaders as well as community leaders—even police and prison populations—about what Ebola is and how to take steps to fight Ebola. But the Church is very much, along with our staff, the hands and feet in our water sanitation and hygiene programs.
Have any of your team members been directly affected by the virus?
We have 32 direct staff in Liberia and nine in Sierra Leone, as well as volunteer staff in addition to that, and none of them have proven positive. Certainly, we spent our initial energies on educating our own staff, getting them cleaning supplies and protective gear and changing the way in which we drill water wells.
For example: Drilling water wells at the health centers and other critical areas. People need water in the health centers to fight Ebola, but we need to push back the crowds, which would typically surround the drilling sites, and we need to make sure that the drillers and associate drillers have the protective gear and gloves and other required materials.
The high-profile cases of Westerners contracting the virus have involved missionaries. One unfortunate commentary in the media has been some criticism of missionaries going into these areas. What is your response those who criticize missionaries going into harm’s way to serve these victims?
Our Liberian national staff, our country directors, our Zambian national staff, all missionaries, our staff in Sierra Leone, our director is Malawian—they’re very engaged in their communities. They are representing their uncles and aunts and family members and church members.
Initially, when we didn’t fully understand the extent of Ebola, we asked all of our teams to take two weeks to get the precautions in place, to get equipped with information and materials. But after that two weeks, they were eager to re-engage, because this is such a battle. It’s a physical battle. It’s an emotional battle. It’s a spiritual battle. We have encouraged our staff to get engaged in the fight, but do so with precautions in place—moving crowds away from the drilling sites, having protective gear, moving to the radio, moving to the publishing houses, getting out ahead of the virus to equip others.
We’re distinguished or differentiated a little bit from other Christian colleagues or organizations because our staff are nationals. They have a little bit more intimate knowledge of perhaps the terrain and where to go and maybe where to not go.
How can fellow Christians get involved and help in the fight against the spread of Ebola, and also to the victims and the communities that are currently suffering through this crisis?
Well, for us, water, sanitation and hygiene are absolutely essential. We know that without clean water, without hygienic practices, the virus will continue.
We are not first-response medical practitioners. The setting up of containment health centers, the tracking of those infected by Ebola, the changing of social and cultural practices are very important in the first response. But they themselves, the first responders, cannot be successful without water, cannot be successful without sanitation and hygiene practices.
So I think what the Lord has equipped us to do is at the center of who we are—the health community that creates sustainable water: To share the living water of Jesus Christ.
Hopelessness and fear need to be overcome. We need divine spiritual intervention. And I think there are a number of ways your readership can respond.
Those that would be interested in supporting water sanitation and hygiene linked to the local church through sharing the Gospel can respond through Living Water. They can respond through Living Water with their financial resources, they can respond with Living Water through their prayers, and helping get the word out.
You know, even in the United States where we have so much access to information, we still don’t totally understand what’s happening in West Africa. I think the readership should respond with prayers and should respond with helping us, come alongside and partner with organizations and provide water and sanitation training and keep the Church engaged and at the center of this.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.