How Africa is losing the fight against Ebola

2014-08-31 15:01

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In December last year, Ebola virus disease (EVD) broke out for the first time in west Africa. The first patient contracted the disease in Nzerekore, a region in the southwest of the Republic of Guinea close to the border with Liberia.

Specialists indicate it was only officially detected in March, after it began spreading to neighbouring west African nations Sierra Leone and Liberia, but also as far as Nigeria, about two hours by air from Guinea.

As of this week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 3?000 suspected cases and more than 1?500 deaths. Many believe the official numbers are substantially lower than the reality because of families’ reluctance to report cases, and age-old cultural practices.

Given the impact of EVD, it is not an exaggeration to say it has become one of the worst epidemics this century.

Because of it’s highly contagious nature for people in direct contact with infected individuals and it’s very high fatality rate in a region where health systems and infrastructure are generally very poor, an unprecedented panic emerged among both authorities and the public.

Medical teams equipped with the necessary highly protective suits involuntarily increased fear and panic.

Naturally and legitimately, many governments in west Africa began adopting strict measures to avoid contagion. Those measures very often included air and sea restrictions as well as border closures.

This situation created a de facto quarantine of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – which went against the recommendations of the WHO and many other humanitarian groups at the front line of the battle to defeat the disease.

In many instances, the WHO has repeated not recommending travel or trade restrictions for the affected countries and has called for lifting the air embargo.

The UN body stresses actual risk of spreading the disease during air travel is low because it requires direct contact with the bodily fluids of a person already displaying symptoms.

A group of volunteers in hazmat suits bury people who died from Ebola virus disease in Kenema, Sierra Leone, this week. Picture: Getty Images

But they’re not being heard. Royal Air Maroc is now the only airline providing regular service to Monrovia, Liberia; and Freetown, Sierra Leone. Brussels Airlines and Air France have been very irregular, with the French carrier announcing on Wednesday its suspension of flights to Liberia. Kenya Airways stopped its flights weeks ago.

“Right now, there is a super risk of the response effort being choked off because we simply cannot get enough seats on enough airplanes to get people in and out, and get goods and supplies in,” the WHO’s emergency chief, Bruce Aylward, told reporters as he launched a nine-month, $490?million (R5.2?billion) EVD battle plan on Thursday.

He was echoed by the UN envoy on Ebola, David Nabarro, who criticised airlines for scrapping flights, warning that EVD-hit countries faced increased isolation, which made it almost impossible for the UN to carry out its work.

The quarantine actually worsens the situation on the ground and sends very negative signals about Africa across the world.

Indeed, it hugely hinders relief efforts by reducing and sometimes stopping the movement of medical supplies and personnel trying to enter an affected country, making control and prevention more difficult. It also delivers a huge blow to the economies of affected countries. The African Development Bank has indicated the outbreak could eventually cost the Mano River Basin countries (Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast) between 1% and 1.5% of their gross domestic product.

Even countries without a single known case are being hit. Some west African nations have started seeing large cancellations in their fragile tourism industries, including a number of postponed regional and international seminars and conferences.

Countries very far from the epicentre of the disease such as Kenya and South Africa are experiencing huge losses in their tourism industries too. The South Korean national carrier, Korean Air, decided to suspend its direct flight between Seoul and Nairobi. This week, the US basketball team cancelled a trip to Senegal, an EVD-free country.

Internationally, the image of the entire continent is again at stake. Africans travelling to Europe, Asia or the US are increasingly under scrutiny. During the recent US-Africa Leaders Summit held in Washington, DC, it was uncomfortable to note the debate among US pundits on primetime TV and radio about the “risk” that African delegates could bring EVD with them.

The week following the summit, news came from Nigeria that the country had to pull out its national team from the Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China, following discrimination against the athletes who were quarantined and barred from training alongside other athletes.

On Wednesday this week, Russian news agency RIA Novosti announced Uzbekistan’s public health ministry has recommended that an organising committee of the wrestling championship in Tashkent abstain from inviting west African athletes due to EVD concerns.

In western Europe – from Spain and Italy to Germany and France – there are a number of documented EVD-motivated racism cases. Yet only one person, a Spanish missionary, is known to have died after contracting EVD while in Liberia. The paranoia is growing and unimaginable acts are being witnessed for fear of Africans exporting the disease.

All this happens at a time when a real pan-African leadership vacuum is being felt. No strong voice or group of voices is being heard loud enough, save the courageous and determined action of the president of the African Development Bank, Dr Donald Kaberuka, whose organisation recently made a $60?million grant to help fight the disease.

If Africans do not act fast enough by putting pressure on their respective political leaders to lift the quarantine imposed on affected countries, the entire continent will soon be quarantined.

Mahtar Ba is executive president of AllAfrica Global Media

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