Ebola lessons: Did prior epidemic experience protect against the spread of COVID‐19 in Sierra Leone?


The COVID‐19 pandemic has prompted a re‐examination of public health preparedness with an emphasis on lessons learned following the West African Ebola epidemic. However, much of this work focuses on technological solutions rather than social learning. Drawing upon anthropological work, this paper examines how Sierra Leoneans prepared for COVID‐19 through a lens of “embodied epidemic memory.” Findings reveal that while people felt more empowered to respond to COVID‐19 due to their past experiences, traumatic memories from the Ebola outbreak also sparked logics of fear and avoidance, driven by mistrust toward the state and its healthcare system. As a result, people avoided healthcare facilities, and rumors concerning government corruption threatened mitigation efforts. While local populations should be better leveraged for their existing epidemic expertise, greater attention is needed to the “higher hanging fruit” of preparedness: restoring trust in the government’s ability to respond to epidemics.

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A building behind a wire fence
The Covid-19 Isolation Ward at Kono Government Hospital in June 2022. Photo by Kristen E. McLean.
Representation of President Julius Maada Bio receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, as depicted on the front gates of the Kono Government Hospital in June 2022. Photo by Kristen E. McLean.