Sophie McNamara worked as a Field Communications Manager in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak
Working as a field communications officer in Sierra Leone was a far cry from my regular desk job in Sydney. Instead of reading about the Ebola outbreak from my air-conditioned office, I was face-to-face with the crisis: visiting slums, villages and clinics, talking to people who had been deeply affected by the disease.
The people who have stuck with me include Umaru, a young Ebola survivor who regularly attended Médecins Sans Frontières' survivor clinic in Freetown. As he searched for purpose in a city paralysed by the outbreak, he drew illustrations of his fight against the disease, some of which were used in a Médecins Sans Frontières health promotion brochure.
Instead of reading about the Ebola outbreak from my air-conditioned office, I was face-to-face with the crisis: visiting slums, villages and clinics, talking to people who had been deeply affected by the disease.
There was also the family in a muddy Freetown slum who were anxiously waiting out the 21-day incubation period after losing a relative to Ebola. Médecins Sans Frontières' outreach team visited regularly, checking if anyone had developed symptoms.
As the only Médecins Sans Frontières Communications person in the country, the role was a mixed bag of responsibilities. Media relations included everything from facilitating an interview on a small radio station in regional Sierra Leone, to setting up a live Skype interview with an international TV network, to coordinating media visits by foreign journalists. One of the more unusual experiences was filming a Japanese Médecins Sans Frontières logistician for use by a Japanese TV program – I couldn’t understand what he was saying on film but with the help of the Japanese office it all worked out! I also monitored local media, developed talking points, updated crisis info bulletins and attended regular government briefings on the rapidly evolving outbreak.
Back home, the experience led to another project when I authored Médecins Sans Frontières' One Year Ebola Accountability Report. I also reflect on my time in Sierra Leone whenever I’m writing stories about Médecins Sans Frontières field workers as now I have more insight into what life is really like in the field.
The role was not easy, but it was such a privilege to witness Médecins Sans Frontières teams in action, to gain more insight into this huge outbreak and humanitarian crisis and to use my communications experience in such a critical setting.