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Book Review

Behind the lenses of Chernoh’s Ebola Outbreak in West Africa

August 24, 2016 By Osman Benk Sankoh

Chernoh Alpha M. Bah (Socialist Bah cum opposition politician and not the UN Child/Girls’rights advocate, Chernor Bah) almost instantly struck a chord when just on page five of his recent book, he brought back near echoes of residents of Jui and Allen Town fleeing gunshots from rebels/sobels of the junta regime of the Revolutionary United Front/Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (RUF/AFRC) during the January 6 invasion of Freetown in 1999. Soldiers who were regarded as part of the rebels were labelled ‘sobels’, a coinage which became popular especially in the later years of the war in Sierra Leone.

This time though, like the entire country, it was not the sounds of guns and bombs that Jui and Allen Town residents were fleeing from. It was a new war; an unprecedented Ebola hemorrhagic fever that started first in neighboring Guinea, then Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

Chernoh, like the decade long civil war, lived through the Ebola crisis in the country and fortunately, he survived to tell his story. His, titled: “The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa -Corporate Gangsters, Multinationals & Rogue Politicians,” was helpful with killing the time at the Kotoka International Airport, Accra, Ghana, just the other day while waiting for my connecting flight. My first leg was about 10 hours. Hungry and sleepy, Chernoh’s (again not Cee Bah) book was the ‘Red Bull’ energy supplement that I needed to revive me. No sooner I started flipping through the pages, beginning with the Forward written by Dr. Lans Gberie, than I couldn’t stop reading.

Several months back, Chernoh had sent a message to me on Facebook. I was online. He wanted to chat about politics, my wellbeing and his recently released book. “Chief,” he said “I want you to read my book and would be happy if you could do a review.” I had just done one on Gberie’s “War, Politics and Justice in West Africa.” I promised, got a copy but struggled to find time to read. Chernoh kept persisting.

Several years back, the young, tall, lanky, bearded and Fulani-looking Chernoh had come to Concord Times newspaper and requested audience with the Editor. Then, I did not know him. First thought was, he was just another ‘youthman’ – a common name for young disgruntled jobless men in Freetown – who was tired with ‘de system’and wanted an outlet to pour out his anger. Accompanying him was another youngman of almost the same stature but not Fulani-like and not too tall – Tanu Jalloh was that man.

With sheets of A4 papers folded in his back pocket (his trademark then), Chernoh had written a piece and wanted it published on Concord Times. I read it. It was good. The next day, it was published. That was how both men landed at Concord Times and subsequently served as Editors.

Sitting around the Gate 4 Departure at Kotoka airport, I had no regret picking up Chernoh’s work. It kept my company until Kenya Airways was ready for takeoff. From the title itself, and the cover with grim images of freshly dug out graves and names of loved ones buried underneath, the pages were dedicated to the Ebola outbreak. Interestingly, while passing through Accra few weeks back, I had the opportunity of attending a workshop on Ebola preparedness.

Sierra Leonean born Dr. Osman A. Sankoh, (Mallam O) as the Executive Directive of INDEPTH – Ghana (an international Network of demographic research institutions that provides health and demographic data to enable low-and middle-income countries set health priorities and policies based on the best available evidence) had brought together 66 participants from 22 countries in Africa, including Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. It was aimed at broadening the knowledge of participants on potential Ebola virus disease outbreaks. Also, it was meant to help them identify at-risk regions within their own countries or regions of interest and help justify and prioritise surveillance and preparedness activities.

For Mallam O., the workshop was necessary because the Ebola outbreak in the three West African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea was unprecedented in its size and scale and: “One of the most concerning issues was that Guinea, where the outbreak originated, was never previously considered to be at-risk of Ebola cases arising.”  Coming from Warima in northern Sierra Leone, the Biostatistician/Epidemiologist, who has also taken into effortlessly writing literary works , like Chernoh,  has not only  called attention to the outbreak in the sub-region but has been using every tool at their disposal to help save the lives of our precious ones .

Behind the walls of the book, Chernoh did not mince his words in criticising President Ernest Bai Koroma and his government over the way they handled the issue of four forty-feet containers of medical supplies which, together with a colleague, they were able to request for in the United States. Correspondences were exchanged. A delay ensued. The political implications of the donation, especially from a member of the opposition, were discussed. New York Times gave the issue international coverage. Local media in support of the government, according to Chernoh, claimed that the container had expired drugs. Meanwhile, people were dying because of the lack of drugs. He writes, “The container story, especially the government’s failure to timely get it out of the ports, became a critical reference in the national outbreak response: an indicator of the government’s lack of genuine commitment and non-prioritization of its response to the outbreak.”

His critique was not only targeted at Koroma and his government. With the same salvo, Chernoh fired verbal shots at the endemic corruption that reared its ugly head again at the behest of those thousands who were losing their lives to the virus every day. From the numerous local and international NGOs that sprouted almost overnight in the name of containing the outbreak, cash in exchange for Ebola travel passes from health workers to security personnel both in Sierra Leone and Guinea pocketing some Leones and Guinean Franc from weary passengers, this was like a new trade boom. In particular, Chernoh emphasised this point with: “Guinean officers in charge of the checkpoints were more interested in their bribe collection than in controlling the outbreak.”

From Sierra Leone, to Guinea and Liberia, the story was almost the same. Ambulances with supersonic speed, Ebola Holding Centres, Check-points and security forces deployed to fight the unseen enemy became the norm. Adding to this was also the unpreparedness and the sometimes lack of trust by the people of their governments in the three countries to stem the outbreak.

For him, while Sierra Leone was busy declaring a State of Emergency and instituting a lot of restrictions to curb the transmission, in Guinea, where the outbreak started, it was business as usual. No crowd control, commercial vehicles were loaded in Chinese numbers and international flights were dropping off and picking up passengers at will in Conakry as if there was no fear to come to the region.

Chernoh also tried to wax historical in the Book, contextualising the Ebola outbreak with the civil war in the 90s and what he described as “similar western narratives around the origins of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.” He was brutal in his criticism of German born Scientist, Fabian Leendertz, who led a report titled: “The Zoonotic Origins of the West Africa Ebola Virus”, that the virus started with a two-year old Guinean boy who may have played with bats. “The importance of the Leendertz report to understanding the dominant narrative on the origins of the 2014 Ebola epidemic is analogous to the importance of Robert Kaplan’s 1994 report, ‘The Coming Anarchy,’ for Western theorisation on the 1990’s West African civil wars,” Chernoh stated.

He casts aspersions on the veracity of the ‘zoonotic transmission’ being the real cause for the outbreak. “Is there a different narrative on the origin of the Ebola epidemic outside of the Euro-American analysis that now dominates global understanding of the origins of the virus,” he inquired.

Once again, the critical journalist in Chernoh came out in the book. He was emotional and passionate about the issues he was writing about. Thus, he did not hold back in his criticism of what he himself described as: “Corporate Gangsters, Multinationals and Rogue Politicians”. By speaking to about 3000 individuals in the sub-region while writing the book, it clearly tells he was particular about the details. This was an apt way to do a research. However, on the downside, I wonder how many Liberians he may have interviewed in Liberia itself. He visited places in Sierra Leone and Guinea but it seems, to me, he was silent about Liberia, a country, just like Sierra Leone which suffered similar fate.

On the whole, it was a very good piece of work. It is not boring and the facts are there for you to challenge if you want to. Chernoh, like all those who have written about the outbreak deserve some praise. You may not agree with all what was written but the effort even in attempting to write was worth it.

I am intoxicated with Chernoh’s writing. You may or maybe not. However, grab a copy and be the Judge.

Editor’s Note: The author is erstwhile editor of Concord Times.