More than a thousand lives lost, over two thousand infected, three countries ravaged, a fourth’s toll rising, the whole continent held hostage, and the world in panic; yet the Ebola epidemic rages on with health agencies struggling to bring it under control.
It all began nine months ago in a tiny village in Meliandou, Guéckédou Prefecture in Guinea, before spreading to neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone and then made landing in Nigeria thanks to the lack of a cure, dilapidated healthcare systems, slow and uncoordinated government response, ineffective institutions, poor sensitization, and pervasive ignorance and poverty.
Finally the world is taking the Ebola epidemic serious with the World Health Organization labelling it an international health emergency, the US and Canada remembering that they have trial drugs and vaccines and China realising it could help the continent where it is the highest investor. Sadly these things only began to happen after two Americans got infected and the spread to foreign countries, a la Nigeria, became a huge possibility.
Using E.B.O.L.A as an acronym, here are five lessons that this epidemic has taught African countries:
E-nvironment: As African governments focus on creating ‘enabling environments’ for the boom of businesses and investments, it is imperative that they recognise the fundamental importance of sanitised urban and rural environments as well as effectively monitored forests and waters. Ebola has proven that even a sick wild animal inside the farthest forest can be the spoiler alert of a region’s development economic progress.
The Ebola virus was first identified in 1976 with two simultaneous outbreaks in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Republic of Zaire) – in a village situated near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name. Since then there have been repeated reoccurrence of the virus across the DRC, Uganda and Gabon, before the current outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria.
Even though it has been known from the first incidence that the Ebola outbreak initiates from human contact with blood or bodily fluids of carrier animals like fruit bats, monkeys or other wild animals, in addition to the fact that all outbreaks begin from rural areas with proximity to forests, very little have been done by the affected countries or regions to control or better monitor the environment to prevent outbreaks.
Most transmissions have started with farmers who hunt wild animals as bush-meat or locals who buy and consume them. But despite bush-meat hunting and consumption being commonplace across sub-Saharan Africa, there’s hardly any government in the region that has put in place mechanisms to regulate the type and guarantee the safety of livestock been hunted and consumed.
Environmental problems in Africa are not limited to rural areas however; most urban areas across African countries are plagued with huge waste disposal problems, lack of effective drainage systems- and blockage of the few available, poor levels of sanitations especially within densely populated slums, among others. All it takes for a health epidemic is a combination of some of these environmental hazards with a transmissible deadly virus like Ebola.
African governments have to, with the tragic experience of this Ebola epidemic, put proper environmental management among their top priorities. Before the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the virus had affected east and central Africa; these areas previously affected share no border with the countries currently being ravaged. This means the virus could spring up in any other part of sub-Saharan Africa where the carrier animals exist, the only way to stop that is to begin to take our environment, forests, and wildlife areas more seriously.
B-etter Healthcare: In much of Africa, effective healthcare system and proper healthcare delivery are not just inexistent but widely perceived as implausible. Already struggling with countrywide poor and inadequate infrastructures, rural areas in many African countries lack health centres and hospitals while the urban centres often have theirs overstretched, understaffed and underequipped.
Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are examples of this milieu with their inefficient nay inexistent healthcare systems and centres contributing greatly to the uncontrollable spread of the Ebola virus. Same was the case in Sudan, Congo and Uganda when they were hit by Ebola outbreaks. Sadly the situation of healthcare delivery systems in these countries is still largely inadequate, evidenced by repeated outbreaks and high fatalities of the Ebola virus as well as other viral outbreaks.
Still, it is a matter of priorities, African countries and its governments must begin to take serious the provision of efficient universal healthcare. Nigeria for example, where- before the Ebola outbreak -public hospitals have been shut down due to Doctors’ strike, is remarked as a country where its wealthy elites go to luxury private hospitals or fly abroad for health issues as minute as “medical check-ups”.
The Ebola epidemic has shown just how crucial keeping even the poor masses in the rural areas healthy is to the health-safety of the entire nation, especially the seemingly detached wealthy elites.
O-n Your Own: there is a popular Nigerian phrase “you are on your own oh”, often abbreviated as OYO. It is used to remind a person that his problems are his to solve. This Ebola epidemic and the cavalier intervention from the western world is a reminder for Africa that its problems and the way the continent solves them are primarily its business.
If there’s any lesson Africa must learn from this Ebola outbreak and the world’s response to it, it is that – at the end of the day “everyone is on his own”. African countries have to stop folding their hands and looking to the west to solve their problems.
As much as the World Health Organization (WHO) has been rightly criticized for its slow reaction to the Ebola epidemic, the African governments and regional groups bear the ultimate responsibility for this tragedy.
It is shameful that despite the fact that Ebola has been recurrently claiming hundreds of African lives for close to four decades, very little have been done by Africans to find a cure, an effective means of prevention, or a systematic way of caring for victims of the virus. Same way Africa has been at the backseat of the fight for the eradication of malaria, or the cure for HIV/AIDS, Lassa Fever etc, even though Africans dominate the front seat of victims of these sicknesses.
Although it is deeply disturbing that the US only decided to reveal that they had Ebola trial drugs after two of their own got infected, African countries must learn from this that in the end, it all about national interests. After all, the trial drugs were only been researched in the first place because of the fear of Ebola been used as a biological weapon against the US, and not to save Africa.
As the Ebola-hit African countries continue to scramble for any Ebola treatment out there, they and indeed all African countries, individually and as a group, must begin to find their own efficient cures for not just health but also socio-political and economic problems.
L-ack of Information kills: The massive deceit of Nigerians by an unfounded rumour that salt and water, if drank and bathed with, immunizes from Ebola, showed the pervasive lack of knowledge of the Ebola virus by the general populace. That rumour reportedly led to the death of two Nigerians who consumed salt in large quantities, an example of how virulent misinformation can be.
Government and the civil society of the three worse-hit countries have been roundly criticised both locally and internationally for not doing enough sensitization. Journalist Wade Williams bemoaned this lack of sensitization in his piece in the New York Times about his coverage of theEbola crises in Liberia.
Rather than spread information about how people could protect themselves, he wrote, Liberian authorities were quarantining information about the disease. “We journalists had to turn to the United States Embassy’s April 4 advisory to American citizens, warning against contact with blood, body fluids or contaminated items”, he lamented.
The lack of sensitization created doubts, spurred myths, and failed to discourage practices, like washing of corpses, which further fuelled the spread of the outbreak. Absence of correct information also gave room for misinformation that exaggerated the possible ways of contracting the virus and skyrocketed panic in the affected countries.
A-ct: On other days Government sluggishness is undoubtedly the chief-hinderer of Africa’s development, with Ebola it became the accelerant of the virus’ spread. Not only were the governments of the Ebola-hit countries not proactive, the pace of their reaction was virtually a standstill.
It took authorities in Guinea four months (December 2013 to March 2014) and an estimated 86 casualties for the country to realize that it had an Ebola outbreak, and then another four months to declare it a national emergency, after more than 300 lives have already been lost.
Liberian authorities, albeit doing nothing to prevent the virus from crossing into the country, spent more time preventing journalists from covering the Ebola epidemic than preventing the virus’ continued spread. At one time in April Liberia’s President Sirleaf, criticized for travelling abroad in the midst of the outbreak, declared that “while it (Ebola) is a concern, there is no need for panic”. Now there is; only in recent weeks did the government realise that it should restrict the movement of people from the area most hit by the epidemic.
The Sierra Leonean government did not perform any better; while the death toll from Ebola in the country was at 192, the government had only one Ebola testing centre in the whole country. The insensitivity of the government was so infuriating that it caused an open criticism from the country’s very influential religious leaders’ bloc. The country’s nurses also went on strike in the same period to protest over poor safety measures and a ridiculously low insurance cover (said to be $20 at that time).
Even though Nigerian authorities have been applauded for their relatively quick reaction to the entrance into the country of the Liberian Ebola carrier Patrick Sawyer, the country’s failure at being proactive have made it a scapegoat for other countries to learn from and screen incomers from the Ebola-hit region.
That nonchalance by Nigerian Authorities, even after the Ghana scare, to check incomers from Ebola-hit countries (given that Patrick Sawyer was reportedly physically sick) has dragged the country of 170 million and its
city (Lagos) of 21 million into the mud of deadly virus which is already making its mark by killing three and infecting a close to a dozen Nigerians.
Quick and effective pro-action, action and reaction are exercises that African countries must begin to exert not just to prevent deadly outbreaks like Ebola but also to foresee and nip in diverse societal challenges in the bud.
Source: Ventures Africa