The African Studies Center at U-M has a deep commitment to fostering collaborative research and scholarship in Africa, and with its scholars. Through our seed grant competition, the ASC supports joint research projects bringing together U-M faculty and researchers affiliated with universities on the continent. We report here on the work that has been supported by recent ASC seed grants to showcase the breadth of this scholarship and to encourage other U-M-based scholars to consider applying for a Seed Grant award with one or more colleagues on the continent. 

Elisa Mafioli is an Assistant Professor of Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Through the African Social Research Initiative (ASRI), Maffioli was awarded a seed grant for her work titled “Fostering community trust of health authorities during Covid-19 pandemic in Liberia.” Together with Fatorma Bolay (National Public Health Institute of Liberia), Maffioli will utilize “a dual-pronged program to both promote local-scale public health behaviors and bolster civilian trust in government health institutions, to improve public perceptions of trust of health authorities, influence behavioral compliance in communities, and develop a better scientific understanding of the mechanisms of trust during public health crises.” Maffioli and her research collaborators have identified Liberia as a country that is especially vulnerable to the effects of infectious diseases generally, and COVID-19 specifically. 

Maffioli is building on her previous work in Liberia where she conducted research during the Ebola outbreak in 2015/16. Through this work, she interviewed over 2200 people, allowing her to put together a database with crucial information regarding public health crises, management, and response. The seed grant project will draw on her experience and database in Liberia and seek to “foster collaboration between the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL), the Ministry of Health (MoH), and local community leadership to develop, pilot, and measure trust-related intervention programs that have the potential to reduce the risk of communicable disease transmission and also bolster civilian trust in the health institution authorities of Liberia.” Through these collaborations, Maffioli hopes to reconnect with 1000 people” from her original study, which was gathered through phone data collection rather than face-to-face interviews. 

Discussing her work in Liberia, Maffioli outlined that trust is an essential component of public health responses - especially during crises like COVID-19 where rapid responses from governmental institutions are paramount. She seeks to understand which institutions are best suited to distribute essential information to citizens, and which institutions will be most trusted in doing so. During Ebola, Maffioli found that traditional healers were an important source of information for Liberian citizens, and they were integrated into the government’s public health response. This type of insight may be equally relevant during Liberia’s ongoing response to COVID-19. Maffioli notes that trust is very difficult to build over time, and this issue is compounded by Liberia’s history. However, because trust is a cultural norm, it is mutable over time. This mutability offers an opportunity for researchers to study how best to involve different institutions in the dissemination of critical information in order to protect citizens as much as possible and to build trust across both citizens and governmental institutions over the long-term.