Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia must turn Ebola crisis into a blessing in disguise


May 12, 2015 By Zainab Tunkara Clarkson (aka Zee Clarkson)

Now that the Ebola virus disease pandemic has stopped spreading, the challenge for the affected nations is to rebuild their devastated communities. Just as Europe did after World War Two, this should provide an opportunity for widespread rehabilitation and regeneration

NOW that the worst of the Ebola virus disease (EVD) has passed and the pandemic has stopped spreading, rebuilding the shattered and torn communities it has devastated is the next challenge. In several ways reconstruction may actually be a bigger task than curtailing the virus as it involves long-term capital investment.

Across the West African sub-region about 10,702 people died from the highly contagious Ebola virus, with Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea the worst affected countries. Now that the spread of the virus has abated, Nigeria and the US have commenced collaboration in medical research, launching a test study in Abuja aimed at finding a permanent cure for EVD.

While Nigeria was only mildly affected by the pandemic suffering just nine deaths, her West African neighbours went through the traumas that countries that have faced long-term war go through. In Sierra Leone for instance, schools were shut for about a session, markets have been devastated, thousands of kids have been orphaned, commercial enterprises have been decimated and thousands of hitherto industrious people are now dependent on handouts.

Liberian president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, said the economic impact of Ebola is as much a tragedy and disaster as the disease. She pointed out that in the months just after the outbreak, airlines abandoned her country, markets closed, growth stalled and tourism and foreign investment vanished.

As we speak, Liberia’s economy is slowly recovering, while that of Guinea is stagnating and Sierra Leone is suffering severe recession. In the World Bank’s latest update on the West African sub-region released on April 15, all three countries were said to face serious vulnerabilities, including decimated government budgets and the need to rebuild employment, education, infrastructure and routine health care.

During a recent visit to Washington, President Ernest Bai Koroma appealed to the international community not to forsake Sierra Leone. His cries were echoed by those of President Johnson-Sirleaf and Guinean President Alpha Condé as between them, the three leaders asked for debt relief of $3.2bn and an $8bn commitment over several years for a kind of post-Ebola Marshall Plan.

A donor’s conference has been planned for July during which the requests will be debated but for now, the World Bank has pledged about $650m in aid over the next 12 to 18 months. Across all three countries, weak local healthcare systems proved inadequate when the virus began to spread last year and these need to be significantly rebuilt to deal with the post-Ebola era.

Generally, healthcare facility improvements are needed in all three countries, especially a much-strengthened system of surveillance to spot any resurgence. With professional healthcare workers being in short supply, a massive recruitment and training exercise is needed.

President Johnson-Sirleaf described her efforts to empower communities to fight the disease, a far more effective approach than commands from above. One of the most profound lessons from the pandemic is that, in addition to the need for treatment centres, human behaviour plays an important part in such crisis.

Fear can unleash irrational and dangerous actions that only spread the illness, so it is essential to build trust with people affected. In Liberia for instance, treatment centres were attacked, with materials carted away, which worsened the spread of EVD. So the populace needs to be sensitised about such actions.

Combating ignorance and fear should be part of a national awareness campaign, which in itself should be part of a wider post-Ebola rehabilitation plan. Included in this will be the resuscitation of now economically depressed areas, the retraining of thousands, if not millions of people and the reinvigoration of dormant communities.

Like her two neighbours, Sierra Leone’s recovery from Ebola will by and large be judged by how well she revives her economy, increases healthcare provision, provides education and gets her social amenities up and running again. Just as Europe got herself back off her knees in the aftermath of World War Two, so too must Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea embark upon a post-Ebola rebuilding programme.

If countries like Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union that were devastated by that conflict could rebuild themselves within short spaces of time, we have no excuse not to do it in West Africa too. If the international community agrees to come up with the funding, there is no justification for Ebola not ending up being a blessing in disguise.

Zainab Tunkara Clarkson is the Chairlady of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (AFRUCA UK), Board Member of Teach For Sierra Leone and Murraytong Pikin. She is also the Children and Gender Editor and Marketing Director of Voices from the Diaspora Radio Network.