This ought to be a season of hope for Liberia and Sierra Leone, two of the West African countries that have been battered by the Ebola epidemic.
Following a brutal dictatorship and a horrific civil war that lasted more than a quarter of a century, Liberia, a tiny republic founded by freed American slaves in the mid-1800s, had in the last few years become one of the darlings of the continent. In the last decade it had twice elected a Harvard-educated woman president under circumstances that were judged free and fair. And overseas investors had found their way back to the country whose capital, Monrovia, was once known as the Manhattan of West Africa.
In neighboring Sierra Leone, a country still better known for the savagery of rebels who chopped off the limbs of babies during that country’s civil war than for its stunning topography and beautiful diamonds, the rule of law and democracy have largely returned. And like many other countries on the continent, its economy grew steadily. For the first time in decades a bright future loomed.
Then Ebola struck.
To date, the virus has killed more than 3,000 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria and infected thousands of others. In recent months we’ve been reminded that national borders are little match for a pernicious, near invincible virus. Several Americans, including at least two physicians and an NBC News cameraman who were in Liberia, have been infected. At least two Spaniards have contracted the virus and a Spanish nurse who tended one of the patients has come down with Ebola.
Just last week, a Liberian man infected by Ebola died at a Dallas hospital, bringing the reality (and fear) of the disease home to so many Americans. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that under a worst-case scenario, as many as 1.4 million people could die on the continent—although officials are hopeful that the spread will largely be contained before it gets that bad.
The outcome of this epidemic has generated some finger pointing by some West African leaders that the west moved too slowly in helping contain the crisis. There have been accusations of racism leveled against western health officials for trying the new experimental Ebola drugs on White patients first while taking less aggressive treatment options with Africans.
There are a few big lessons that all sides can learn from this crisis.
First, the Ebola crisis once again highlights the fragility of the health system in much of Africa. Emerging African economies like Nigeria, whose leaders regularly fly to England, the United States or India for even the most basic medical examinations, will never experience true progress without a strong health system in place. Improving access to and the quality of medical care has rarely been a priority for most African nations. This is the fourth (and biggest) Ebola outbreak in 40 years. Given the burden it is placing on the continent and increasingly on the rest of the world, this is an appropriate time for the world’s leading nations to insist that African nations make the strengthening of their healthcare systems a priority.
Second, this may also be an appropriate time for African countries to review some of their management practices. According to the New York Times, some medical supply shipments from countries, including the United States, have been sitting at a seaport in Sierra Leone since August, caught up in a bureaucratic maze. Top government officials have been made aware of the problem but have done nothing to resolve it. In the meantime, hundreds of people continue to die.
Third, all nations, particularly the wealthy and influential ones, need to recognize more quickly that in this jet age such a viral outbreak is not just an African problem but a global issue. Our knowledge of the virus and its origins is still in its infancy. As recently as 20 years ago, some scientists speculated that the outbreak in the Congo might have had something to do with the consumption of Gorilla meat. Now the speculation is that fruit bats might spread it. God alone knows. But of this we can be certain: there will be another outbreak in the future.
Right now the countries paying the biggest price are African nations with fragile economies that had just turned the corner. Many are seeing their economic progress shattered, a trend that is bound to have repercussions on investors all over the world.
Published reports show that trade across many African borders has slowed significantly. The World Bank says unless the epidemic is contained it could cause Liberia’s economy to contract by 4.9% and shrink Sierra Leone’s economic growth from 11% to about two percent. The region’s nascent tourist sector has also been battered. Many nations have closed their borders to countries affected by the virus or canceled flights from there.
Yes, the Ebola outbreak is bad for business. But it also a reminder that in this jet age the start of a major health crisis that could shake the foundation of nations might be just one plane ride away.
(Lekan Oguntoyinbo is a national award-winning journalist. Follow him on Twitter @oguntoyinbo.)