Ebola Response: In Addition to Food, WFP Saves Lives Through Information Technology

Reliable internet for communications is a necessity for health workers and humanitarian actors fighting Ebola in West Africa. In order to care for infected patients and prevent the disease from spreading, aid workers need to be able to coordinate from the frontlines, ensuring they have the right supplies, staff and information. The WFP-led Emergency Telecommunications Cluster provides communications equipment and services in remote areas so that humanitarians can fight Ebola effectively. Comprising a network of partners from humanitarian, government and private sectors, this cluster relies on dedicated individuals who are willing to face risk and adversity to support the humanitarian cause.

On their way to a health workers’ camp in Port Loko district, about 45 miles east of Freetown, Michael Redante, WFP’s Emergency Telecommunications and Information Management Officer, and his team members passed a house cordoned off by a red line with a sign reading ‘’QUARANTINED.”  A woman living in the house had recently tested positive for Ebola and had been transferred to a nearby Ebola treatment centre.

Redante was shocked – just a few days earlier, the family had been living a normal life. Now, they were cut off from the world. They looked scared.

As they entered a camp for health care professionals working at an Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) near Port Loko town, Redante and his team met Nicolai Kristensen, the camp manager, who welcomed them.

‘’We have no reliable cellular network out here,” Kristensen soon confessed.  ”My team needs medical supplies but it costs us $5.00 a minute to call out. What do we do if we need to buy a list of equipment that is three pages long?’’

Five health workers were just returning from testing blood samples at a laboratory in the ETU. They needed to inform healthcare teams that a patient had to be relocated. But, due to the poor internet connection, it was taking hours to send a single email.

Health workers in the camp also told Redante how they missed family members and friends, with whom they were unable to talk for weeks on end. In Sierra Leone, the mobile network outside Freetown is weak and in some cases non-existent.

Responding to the health workers’ needs, Redante and his colleagues rolled up their sleeves. In no time, they had put up a satellite dish and wifi equipment provided by WFP partners, Emergency.lu and Ericsson Response. After two and half hours’ work, camp dwellers were able to communicate with their colleagues, friends, and families. Redante managed to make a video skype call to Rome, 4,500 kms away.

“The sense of relief and comfort I got from seeing and hearing a familiar and loving face gave me some hope to continue doing this work,” he said.  

For health workers and Ebola patients, this technology means that lives can be saved through timely communication.

Led by WFP, the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster is dedicated to providing humanitarian workers with the innovative technology they need to fight Ebola efficiently. Among its ranks is a team of Information and Telecommunications specialists from standby partners including Ericsson Response, the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief and WFP staff who donate their time and expertise in response to emergency situations.