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Ebola: Some thoughts from my time in Liberia By John Spray, ODI Fellow, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Liberia.

 

A lot has been written about the Ebola crisis in West Africa in the last few weeks. Many excellent articles have highlighted the plight of those suffering with Ebola (Newsweek), and the people on the frontline trying to tackle the virus (Time) and the consequences on the affected countries as a whole (How we made it in Africa). However, the real tragedy is how an inherently preventable virus was able to spread like wildfire throughout West Africa and why public health facilities failed on such an enormous scale.

I first heard about Ebola in March 2013, four months after the first patient died of the virus in a small village in south-eastern Guinea, the first ever in West Africa.
With the death toll rising across the border in Guinea, discussions in Monrovia turned to the threat of it reaching the capital: “no previous outbreak has killed more than 300 people”, “it is easy to avoid just don’t go near sick people and you are safe”, and “the disease kills people so quickly it will die out before it reaches Monrovia”. The general message was “it is scary, but we can control it with basic public health.”

Despite these reassurances, everyday you check the news: how many infected? How many died? How many health clinics were beginning to shut due to healthcare workers leaving their posts? Despite the growing chaos, we in Monrovia continued to rationalize the situation. We knew things were getting worse but we didn’t act in time.

So when did it get “out of control”? Was it when MSF declared it to be so in June? Was it when the virus hit Conakry, Freetown and Monrovia, making control of the disease in crowded urban environment increasingly hard? Perhaps it was when the Liberian-American Ministry of Finance consultant died after flying to Lagos, inadvertently putting a planeload of passengers and Africa’s most populous country at risk.

Whenever it was, there is no question that we are now in the middle of an unprecedented crisis. Every day, I dread reading the news. The front page of every newspaper is full of articles discussing the bleak picture of Liberia’s largest slum quarantined like something out of a science fiction novel. I read about the almost complete collapse of the government’s health care facilities and the justifiable fear of the healthcare workers too scared to go to work. We hear terrifying stories of suspected cases being turned away from treatment centres because there is no space to treat them, and bodies left on the street for days without someone coming to pick them up. Most of all, I fear for the secondary threats should countries follow through on plans to impose economic embargoes on the country.

Already five airlines have stopped flying to Liberia through fear of the disease. Earlier reports that West African ports have refused entry to vessels which have docked in Liberia appear false, but raise an alarming prospect of the country cut off from essential imports. This is dangerous given that Liberia is completely dependent on imports with an import bill equal to 60 percent of GDP including two of the most important commodities, fuel and rice. Even without an economic blockade importers are worried.

Early reports suggest for the last four weeks the number of import certificates are down 30 percent from the previous year. Not to mention, the travel restrictions inside the country making movement of agricultural goods from farm to market next to impossible. These developments will raise the price of essential goods necessary for the Liberian economy to function and will harm the very poorest. They also raise the possibility of riots on the street and a return to the days of anarchy last seen during Liberia’s bloody civil war.

So how did this happen? The underlying causes of this outbreak are many and difficult and will be discussed for years to come. Fundamentally, they focus on the fragility of West African states and the failure of emergency planning to tackle the crisis when it was at a manageable level.
What can we do about it? Despite the fear, there are many brave West Africans and foreigners continuing to fight this disease. The Ministry of Health is working to open new treatment centres, MSF continues to fight the battle on the front line and are managing patient care alongside national governments. The World Bank has promised USD200million to fight the disease in West Africa. The African Development Bank has promised USD210million to build West African public health facilities. The World Food Program has begun the process of bringing in food to tackle the secondary crisis. NGOs on the ground, including Oxfam, have begun gearing up awareness campaigns to get the message out that Ebola is preventable. These things are vital to the immediate fight and the world needs to react, and react fast.

Once the immediate crisis is brought under control, we must consider measures to strengthen the state institutions especially the health service in order to effectively deal with health threats in the region.

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One Response to “Ebola: Some thoughts from my time in Liberia By John Spray, ODI Fellow, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Liberia.”

  1. Garance says:

    Ebola is scary. But what is also scary is the incapacity or unwillingness of the policy makers to act on the basis of science. Scientific investigations have documented that in the past Ebola outbreak, the spread was ‘nosocomial’, in other words, health facilities which are understaffed and have poor – very poor (sometimes inexistent) infection control have always been the main culprits in the spread of the disease (see BMJ Susan Fisher-Hoch study for example). Now infected health care staff is spreading the disease among patients. As Susan said, “The poor may be illiterate, they are not ignorant”, their response: avoiding health centers – is what stopped epidemics in the past. But, today, NGOs and government response was to FORCE people to go to health centers…

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Global Health Check was created by Anna Marriott and is currently edited by Mohga Kamal-Yanni