This time it is different. As everybody knows, the Ebola haemorrhagic fever first broke out in September 1976 in a remote village in the jungles of the Congo. The current scourge in West Africa is the worst ever. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea face imminent catastrophe. Nigeria, Senegal and Mali have had brushes with the virus. Over 15,145 have been infected, with over 5,689 mortalities. The American Centre for Disease Control suggests that casualties may be much higher due to high levels of under-reporting and inability to reach some of the remote villages.
Before Ebola erupted in March this year, West Africa was the fastest growing region on our continent, with an average growth rate of over 5 percent for the last seven years. ECOWAS is the most successful regional community in Africa, with a population of 295 million and some of the most vibrant cultures on the planet. It is a region with abundant natural-resource endowments.
The poverty-stricken nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are fragile countries that have only recently extricated themselves from the shadows of misrule, violence and war. They have made heroic efforts to rebuild their economies and to institute democracy and the rule of law. Ebola is a disastrous setback.
Until now, Ebola was alien to our sub-region. Scientists tell us that what we have is a new strain altogether. Speculation is rife while conspiracy theories are all the rage. Some have blamed bats and “bush meat” as zoonotic vectors.
Several factors underlie the epidemiology of Ebola: war and conflict leading to population movements; demographics and rapid urbanisation; the sprawling urban slums of Monrovia, Conakry and Freetown; climate change; deforestation and agricultural activities affecting the eco-systems; and sociological factors such as traditional medicine and customary burial practices. All these, combined with fear and panic within an environment of poor health systems and weak institutions, create a dynamic trajectory for the contagion.
I have to salute NGOs such as Médecins sans Frontiers (MSF), Save the Children and others who have sacrificed so much to save lives. Countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, and DRC, China and Cuba have demonstrated their solidarity in so many practical ways. The EU has appointed an Ebola coordinator in the person of Christos Stylianides, who has recently visited the region to see things for himself. The new Jean-Claude Juncker Commission has committed €1 billion to the war against Ebola. President François Hollande of France recently visited Conakry, pledging €600 million in funding. Britain and other bilaterals, in addition to the World Bank, have also made substantial financial commitments.
All of this is welcome. But I fear that the response of the international community remains slow and ineffectual. The graphs for infection and mortality continue to mount. Entire communities are devastated. Mining firms such as Rio Tinto and Arcelor Mittal and other investors are either pulling out or cutting back drastically. One in two people who were formerly employed in Liberia have lost their job. The World Bank estimates that as much as US$ 3.8 billion (low case scenario) and a staggering US$ 32.6 billion (high case scenario) could be wiped off from the GDP of the affected countries. Sierra Leone and Guinea are forecast to go into negative growth for the first time in a decade by -2.0 percent and -0.2 percent, respectively.
The most urgent challenge is to put on ground enough resources, personnel, equipment, drugs and rehabilitation centres to tackle a minimum of 70 percent of infected patients and to do so consistently between now and January ending. Equally crucial is ensuring adequate medical centres and safe burial grounds and procedures. Every day counts. Every delay could lead to a rise in the number of casualties to the order of magnitude of 1.4 million.
In July this year an American-Liberian, Patrick Sawyer, took a flight from Monrovia to Lagos apparently intent on infecting as many of our people as he possibly could. The sad truth is that he received encouragement and support from no less than the Liberian Embassy in Abuja. Over a dozen Nigerians perished, including the doctor and nurse who looked after him. Today, late Stella Adadevoh and Nurse Justina Ejelonu are considered heroines in my country for their bravery and sacrifice.
Nigerians are notoriously cynical about their government. But for once, we all agreed that the Goodluck Jonathan government did something that was worthy of commendation. It has been one of our shiniest moments in living memory.
There are crucial lessons to be learned. Governments at all levels must cooperate. In the Nigerian case, Lagos State Governor Tunde Fashola took decisive steps to protect the population, working in close coordination with the federal health minister. Lagos University Teaching Hospital did its part in providing rapid diagnostics. Communication and public awareness were stepped up. Rapid diagnostic equipment was placed in public places such as airports, shopping malls and markets. We know we cannot rest on our oars while the bushfire continues to rage in our neighbourhood.
For the future, it is clear that action on a global scale will be crucial. Early Warning Systems have to be put in place at national, regional and global levels. Science and research and bold action in developing drugs are vital. Boosting health systems and enhancing infrastructures and governmental capacity are imperative.
Sadly, we note that Ebola is reinforcing old racial prejudices against Africans in Europe and North America. Some children have been barred from local schools because they happened to come from the Ebola-ravaged countries. Several airlines are boycotting West Africa. Canada and Australia have imposed blanket visa restrictions. Ron Paul, a leading American opposition congressman, allegedly demanded that the Obama administration impose a blanket quarantine on our region. Christ being re-crucified in West Africa. Ebola may well be the ultimate test of our civilisation.
(Summary of a Keynote Address at a Charity Dinner Sponsored by Burson Marsteller, Intel, Facebook and other firms for Ebola in West Africa, held at Spirito Clubhouse, Brussels, Tuesday, 3rd December, 2014).