Analysis

Ebola sparks alacrity in torpid states

Charles Onyango-Obbo, Lee Mwiti

The virus has forced otherwise lethargic African governments to act quickly and effectively.

Government burial team members wearing protective clothing carry the coffin of Dr Modupeh Cole, Sierra Leone's second senior physician to die of Ebola. (AFP)

The current outbreak of Ebola – the deadliest on record – is achieving a level of regional co-ordination rarely seen in Africa, ranging from health to aviation, in what will have integration watchers thinking that despite the horror of the disease, there might actually be a sign of hope.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Tuesday updated its grim West Africa disease toll, with 1 229 having succumbed so far from 2 240 cases – a 55% mortality rate.

The virus, which has spread from Guinea to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, has no proven cure yet, although the WHO has approved emergency experimental drugs.

The outbreak has set off a huge panic and several airlines have already stopped flying to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, while Cameroon has closed its land, sea and air borders with Nigeria.

Many airports in Africa have now set up Ebola screening for passengers arriving from West Africa, even though they might not be from countries that are affected, with a lot of information sharing going on.

And it is precisely in these actions, that Ebola has forced otherwise negligent African governments to take proactive actions against a disease in ways many of them have never done.

Now that the threat of HIV and Aids has receded in most of Africa, there is no other disease in recent memory that governments have invested as much time, emotion, and money in. There is also no disease in which there has been such extensive cross-border and regional co-operation, with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan last week issuing a rallying cry over regional strategic co-operation on Ebola management.

Ghana has a cholera epidemic in its capital that has killed nearly 50 people so far with more than 3 000 others infected. However, though it has not yet had a single reported Ebola case, the Ghana government has been active concerning the disease in ways it seems unable to be for cholera.

It is a scenario re-enacted in the stricken countries, where preventable diseases are killing more people than Ebola due to the diversion of resources and personnel. Kenya’s health ministry reportedly requested a $7.7-million Ebola contingency fund, despite its health workers being on strike over lack of pay.

The flurry of government action is unprecedented and might even improve the availability and accuracy of data. Apart from a very active screening programme at its airports and establishing a special Ebola quarantine hospital in Lagos, Nigeria has begun a survey of the distribution of animals in its continuing effort to curb the spread of the virus, according to Environment Minister Laurentia Mallam.

    She said another area of concern in the spread of the virus was the management of healthcare waste at various hospitals in the country. She said in most cases, healthcare waste was combined with municipal waste and disposed of at open dumps indiscriminately.

The minister also commended the government for the ban on cross-boundary movement of corpses.

In East Africa, Tanzanian and Kenyan medical workers at Sirari border post have agreed to team up in the fight against Ebola. Until now, it was more common to hear of Tanzanian border officials blocking the entrance of Kenyan goods.

The Inter Governmental Authority on Development – the regional grouping of Eastern and Horn of Africa states – in a rare bit of pre-emptive action for an organisation better known for battling fires, has called on border entry officials to maintain vigilance to prevent the spread of Ebola virus in the region.

The call came as member state Kenya on Saturday temporarily suspended entry of passengers travelling from and through the Ebola-affected West African countries – excluding powerhouse Nigeria.

This immediately raised the hackles of the International Air Transport Association, which has been holding its Aviation Day Africa in South Africa, under the theme of nurturing intra-African connectivity.

Stopping air services was contrary to the adoption of recommendations contained in a report on aviation market liberalisation, the body said, urging regional airlines to continue services to the affected area.

“This report shows that open skies [liberalisation] and aviation alliances in Africa would be a tool to boost African economies,” the association’s vice-president for Africa Raphael Kuuchi said. “Open aviation in other continents has led to gross domestic product growth and job creation and the same must happen in Africa.”

In Southern Africa, which has only heard about Ebola and never, like East, Central, and now West Africa, had a case, fearful drums are being beaten.

At a meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in the Zimbabwe resort town of Victoria Falls, the country’s 90-year-old leader Robert Mugabe assumed chairmanship of the organisation, yet amid the pomp, minds were still focused on far-off Ebola.

Member countries in the region have responded differently to the outbreak, with some screening passengers and discouraging travel to the affected countries; others have banned travel to the four afflicted countries of Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

Chairperson of the SADC Council of Health Ministers David Parirenyatwa, who is also Zimbabwean minister of health and child care, said: “We wanted to ensure that things are in order in terms of screening and so far we have not had any problems.”

The minister said the region was still to set up a medical fund to bankroll the region’s response to Ebola.

The level of regional co-operation further north has been lacking on many other issues, even when dealing with the threat of terrorism. But with Ebola, governments are not waiting for donor meetings to raise funds to fight it. Most are miraculously finding some “idle” funds for the fight against it.

If African governments could carry forward this spirit of fighting Ebola in making regional co-operation and trade work and to find money for other critical needs at home like they have done for Ebola, Africa would not just rise. It would soar.

This article was first published on mgafrica.com


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