The Slow International Response To Ebola In West Africa
By Cecil Franweah Frank
|U.S. Navy Lieutenant Jose Garcia inactivates the Ebola virus in each specimen in a process that renders the virus safe for analysis at a Naval Medical Research Center mobile laboratory on Bushrod Island, Liberia. The lab can test 80 samples per day.
News of the first Ebola case surfaced in Meliandou, Gueckdou Perfecture in Guinea in late December 2013, but the World Health Organization (WHO), first published formal notification of Ebola’s outbreak on March 23, 2014. This was just about the same time that Ebola crossed the international borderlines of Guinea and Sierra Leone to emerge in Liberia – Lofa and Nimba Counties. Since March 2014, the disease rapidly engulfed the three Mano River Union countries, killing over 4,900 people. Liberia alone accounting for over 2,200 deaths.
Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone are at the center of what WHO calls the “worst Ebola outbreak in history.” All three countries are weak and recovering from great internal turmoil. The international community was always going to play a pivotal role in containing the spread of the Ebola virus. While the governments of the West African countries at the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak failed to handle the virus’ spread, the international community did not respond rapidly enough to help contain the virus.
In her recent “Letter to the World” published on the Liberian online news FrontPageAfrica and by BBC, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf made reference to the slow international response, referring to it as a factor in the way the virus brought Liberia to a standstill. To date, UN relief agencies and aid organizations have only received a little over $400 million from the original $980 million dollars requested to fight the disease. However, as of October 21, donors have only contributed a little over $400 million. Recently, the UN office in charge of coordinating the fight against Ebola estimated the cost of tackling this virus due to the slow response by the international community at $1bn dollars. Three possible factors may explain why the international community initially responded slowly to the Ebola outbreak – donor fatigue, shed indifference, and underestimation of the virus’ potential to wreak havoc.
Africa has been the hardest hit with donor fatigue than any other region of the world since the official end of the Cold War. There are lots of reasons for this, but chief among these reasons is the global perception that Africa, unlike other regions, has failed to take ownership for its development. Donor fatigue had already begun to manifest itself in Liberia long before the outbreak of Ebola. An example of this has been the increasing international demand to downsize or completely withdraw UN peacekeepers from the country.
Moreover, donors had slowed down funding for several other projects in Liberia. The general perception has been that 11 years after the end of the civil crisis and 8 years into the Johnson-Sireleaf government, Liberia had not taken ownership of its future development. The country under the current defense minister until recently was making little effort to take ownership of its own security and defense. At the onset of the Ebola crisis, there was a global perception that the Liberian government was not taking ownership of the campaign to contain the virus, but instead heavily relying on international assistance.
Recently, Kofi Annan, former UN secretary general, stated in a BBC interview that there was a sharp contrast in how the world was responding to the Ebola crisis in Africa with other global crisis such as the 2004 great tsunami in Southeast Asia. He was quoted as saying that “if the crisis had hit some other region, it probably would have been handled very differently.” Whether intentional or not, Mr. Annan’s statement focused attention on the level of global indifference to Africa and double standards on how the world handles emergency humanitarian crisis.
This indifference came to an end when the virus showed its head in the United States through Thomas Eric Duncan. As noted by CNN columnist John D. Sutter in an op-ed published online by CNN on October 17th, prior to Mr. Duncan’s arrival in the U.S. many Americans cared less about the thousands the disease was killing in West Africa. Ebola was primarily seen as a West African problem. As a twist of fate, while the Johnson-Sirleaf government was plotting to prosecute Mr. Duncan for taking the virus to ‘heaven’ in the United States, he is actually responsible for the recent spike in attention and support to combat the disease from the international community. Mr. Duncan’s illness in effect did for Liberia and the other Mano River Union countries engulfed with the virus what they couldn’t do all by themselves – to awaken American and western public attention to the seriousness and importance of tackling Ebola as a global threat, and not just an African problem.
Anthony Banbury, the head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, based in Accra Ghana, recently stated in an interview with U.S. news network NBC that circumstances surrounding the Ebola outbreak were unprecedented mainly because the international community could not anticipate the spread of the disease. NBC quoted him as saying that “the world was not prepared for an outbreak of Ebola like this nature. The reasons he gave for the lack of anticipation on the disease’s spread was that the world had never before seen “… [Ebola] spreading in wide geographical areas, spreading in urban settings, densely populated urban settings.” He went on to say that “the previous outbreaks had been small and localized.”
In conclusion, while the governments of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were unable to effectively deal with the outbreak of Ebola, the failure by the international community to initially respond swiftly this public health crisis in these countries inevitably deepened the Ebola outbreak and caused the situation to go out of control. Three outstanding factors explain the slow response by the international community: donor fatigue, indifference in attitude towards Africa, and abject under-estimation of the disease’s capability to threaten international security. Two important lessons may be drawn from this Ebola crisis – one for African governments, and the other for the international community. First, this crisis offers African governments like the one in Liberia the opportunity to resolve to take more ownership for the direction of their countries’ development instead of relying heavily on external assistance to clean up their mess. This requires creative thinking and efficient use of national resources. Second, the international community needs to do more to help Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone empower themselves by providing them with intellectual and financial resources to build strong governance institutions. Since 1976 when Ebola was first identified to the current outbreak in West Africa, this virus has shown that the African continent as a whole remains a vulnerable place as its leaders are still evidently unable to creatively think through solutions to national disasters and serious public health issues.