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Sophie McNamara

01 Jun 2015

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.

I interviewed people like these, writing stories and taking photos and videos that were used by Médecins Sans Frontières websites and publications, as well as external media outlets.

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.

 

 

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