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How Ebola unified African countries

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Presidents and Heads of governments pose for a group photo How Ebola unified African countriesduring the opening session of the African Union Summit. (Photo, AFP)

THE current outbreak of Ebola—the deadliest on record—is achieving a level of regional coordination rarely seen in Africa, ranging from health to aviation, in what will have integration watchers thinking the horror of the disease might actually be a silver lining.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) 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 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/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. There is also no disease in which there has been such extensive cross-border and regional cooperation, with Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan last week issuing a rallying cry over regional strategic cooperation on Ebola management.

Cholera? Who cares?

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

In the same period Ghana has allocated a reported six million cedis ($1.58 million) to battling the threat of Ebola. The minister in charge of the Greater Accra region Nii Laryea Afotey Agbo was quoted terming the cholera epidemic a blot on his personal record.

How Ebola unified African countries2There was little sign of such semantics when in early July Accra provided the setting of a high-powered ministerial meeting from 11 African countries to adopt a common strategy to fight Ebola.

It is a scenario reenacted in the stricken countries, where preventable diseases are killing more people than Ebola due to the diversion of resources and personnel often away from more fatal diseases to control the deadly virus (See“Getting real: Why you should fear that stray dog more than Ebola”). Kenya’s health ministry has reportedly requested an $7.7 million Ebola contingency fund, despite its health workers being on strike over lack of pay.

The  flurry of government actions 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 deadly Ebola virus, according to environment minister Laurentia Mallam said.

How Ebola unified African countries3Mallam said another area of concern in the spread of the virus was the management of healthcare wastes at various hospitals in the country.  She said in most cases, healthcare wastes were combined with municipal wastes and disposed 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.

Eastern and Horn of Africa regional grouping, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), 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.

Protesting flight suspensions

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 (IATA), 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,” IATA vice president for Africa Raphael Kuuchi said in Johannesburg.

“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, that has only heard about Ebola and never, like East, Central, and now West Africa, had a case, fearful drums were being beaten.

 At a meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in the scenic Zimbabwe resort town of Victoria Falls, the country’s 90-year-old leader and Africa’s third-longest ruling – after José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea – assumed the organisation’s chairmanship of the organisation, yet amidst the pomp minds were still focused on far-off Ebola.

The SADC leaders resolved to come up with a regional position regarding its response to the Ebola outbreak.

Member countries in the region have responded differently to the outbreak, with some screening passengers and discouraging travel to the affected countries while others have taken stricter measures like banning 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, adding that currently, member sates were relying on individual budgets for any response measures.

This level of regional cooperation has been very difficult on many other issues, even when dealing with the threat of terrorism. But with Ebola governments are not waiting for hold donor meetings to raise funds to fight it. Most are miraculously finding some “idle” funds for it, unlike virtually all other national emergencies and diseases.

If African governments could carry forward the spirit of fighting Ebola in making regional cooperation 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.

Ebola has shown that they have what it takes to make this happen.

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