African Solidarity Not Protectionism – Needed in Response to Ebola

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In the week of 26 August, Liberia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Augustine Ngafuan chided Africa for leaving countries hit by Ebola in the lurch. 

He was responding to the continent's systematic ostracism of Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, which have been battling the infectious disease since the first confirmed case in March.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 1,500 have already died from Ebola, and that those numbers could exceed 20,000 before the outbreak is fully contained – which could take six to nine months. Continental border closings and flight cancellations have hindered, not helped, the containment of the disease. The four countries at the outbreak’s epicentre cannot recover with forced isolation.

The 54-member African Union (AU) was built on the pillars of solidarity, not protectionism. Those who advocated for a United States of Africa in the 1950s would be disappointed by the devolution of this ideal. The AU today has missed an opportunity to respond to the Ebola outbreak with urgency.  In mid-August – six months after the first Ebola case was identified – the AU pledged $1m to efforts to fight the disease. That is a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $430m needed to contain it. After establishing the African Union Support to Ebola Outbreak Operation (ASEOWA), the AU vowed to deploy medical and civilian volunteers to affected countries beginning at the end of August. It is now September, and the deployment has yet to start – leading some to question when this deadline will be met.

Instead, Africa-wide health sanctions have been imposed swiftly. Despite assurances from the WHO that Ebola is unlikely to be spread by air travel now that health screenings have been instituted, African airlines such as Air Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya Airways, Gambia Bird, and Togo’s ASKY suspended service to the four Ebola-stricken countries. Brussels Airlines momentarily limited its service because transit country Senegal—which reported its first Ebola case in late August—refused flights from Liberia, Sierra and Guinea. An international investment summit was cancelled in Namibia – which, in southern Africa, is far removed from any known cases of the virus. South Africa meanwhile declared that passengers from the epicentres of the outbreak would be banned from entering its borders.

Continental health sanctions of this magnitude have lowered morale and stopped essential drugs, supplies, food items, and medical experts from entering the countries hardest hit by Ebola. In less diplomatic language, Liberian Minister of Information Lewis Brown called this kind of response ‘un-African.’ He has a point. International hysteria might be expected, but African hysteria is simply unconscionable.

What Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria need at the moment is a coordinated African response to contain the outbreak, one that complements efforts by the WHO, United Nations, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).  

Last year, the AU celebrated its 50-year anniversary, and developed Agenda 2063: a vision for capitalising on the continent’s current momentum and fostering peace and stability over the organisation’s next 50 years. Nevertheless, all the rhetoric about increasing inter-Africa trade and travel has proven futile in the face of the current crisis. Closed borders have effectively brought West African economies to a screeching halt. The AU needs to remind its member states that isolationism will not help. It should also deploy the Ebola relief mission immediately.

Those deployed will need to be supplied with enough personal protective gear to last at least six months. African medical practitioners not trained in infectious disease control should be assigned to hospitals attending to non-Ebola patients, as they too need treatment for minor ailments. Pregnant women, the elderly, and children under five are especially at risk. For African countries experiencing food surpluses, now is the time to ship food supplies to West Africa. The AU should be at the forefront of coordinating this.

For those ignorant about Africa, there is no distinction between east, west, north, south or central. For most people who know nothing about the continent, it is one amorphous blob of disease, famine, war and despair. What African countries showing isolationist tendencies fail to realise is that if one part of Africa gets a bad reputation, this image is projected onto the entire region. This is all the more reason why the entire continent needs to be involved in the ‘war on Ebola.’

Admittedly, there have been some Africa-led examples of solidarity, but they have happened in silos. For instance, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo sent experts to give advice in the early days of the outbreak, and the African Development Bank (ADB) recently donated $60m to assist WHO-led efforts to combat the disease. Some prominent businessmen, such as the Nigerian financier Tony Elumelu, contributed $100,000 to Liberia’s National Task Force on Ebola. Gambia donated $500,000 to Sierra Leone.

Morocco’s Royal Air Maroc, one of a few airlines currently serving Sierra Leone and Liberia, decided to stay the course. After a quick flip-flop, Côte d’Ivoire has kept its trade routes open. Africans living in the diaspora have responded by shipping relief items, medical supplies, and remittances to stave off hunger and anxiety in affected countries.

The AU needs to build on these efforts. It must lift the cloak of continental protectionism, and move towards solidarity. It is not too late for a swift and coordinated Africa-wide Ebola response.

Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author based at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). She is also a Tutu Fellow.  This article was originally published on This Is Africa, a service from the Financial Times Limited.

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