GUEST COLUMN: By Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Alpha Conde of Guinea and Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone appeal for international support in five key areas for a common economic recovery initiative – a 'Marshall Plan' – for the Mano River region of West Africa after the devastating Ebola outbreaks of the past year.
The Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is the worst since the disease was first diagnosed in central Africa in 1976.
The socio-economic impact of the outbreak in the region has been devastating and has reversed the impressive progress of our three nations, each of which was emerging from decades of conflict.
To date, the region has recorded a total of 24,872 cases and 10,311 deaths, nearly ten times the number of total deaths from every other Ebola outbreak combined, hitting our nations at a time when we had each embarked on large-scale reforms and were leaving behind a tragic past.
The unchecked spread of the disease exposed the weaknesses in our national health and security systems, our regional structures and coordination capacity, as well as the response abilities of global public health institutions. We were all ill-prepared to deal with the ferocity of this disease.
Today, we are closer to winning the global war against Ebola as a result of an improved, adapted and coordinated local and international response. Though the fight to contain and eradicate the disease is not over throughout the region, its spread has slowed, and planning for our recovery has begun.
We, the heads of State of the three affected countries along with Cote d'Ivoire met in Conakry, Guinea on February 15 under the Mano River Union, to adopt a common strategy to end the Ebola epidemic in the sub-region, and to address our post-Ebola socio-economic recovery needs.
This meeting was followed by a high-level engagement in Brussels on March 3 and a meeting of our technical committees in Freetown, Sierra Leone on March 16. We will further consolidate our coordinated efforts when we come together to Washington, DC for the Spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank this week.
Our commitment: zero new infections
As individual nations, we are committed to getting to zero new infections. We are now sharing information, technical expertise, innovative community-based health systems, and intensifying public education strategies. We are committed to restoring health services and building back stronger, affordable and safe health care systems for our citizens. We are finding ways to ensure that our children are safely back in schools with WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) programs and practices that can be shared in their homes.
Sustaining our recovery will require revitalizing our economies. We have a commitment to create the conditions for safe and stable livelihoods, employment, and a rejuvenated private sector, which must again be the driver of our development.
As a region, we are committed to strengthening our coordination and improving information-sharing on a real-time basis. We saw how the spread of the Ebola virus was aided by our shared histories and cultures, as the disease jumped across borders and moved from relatives in remote rural areas to urban centers. We were forced to close our borders and cut people off from care and their loved ones. We will never again allow these shared histories and connections to be a weakness.
We are committed now to making sure that our infrastructures, health policies, and economic opportunities follow our people across the borders and create the linkages that encourage collaboration, community-based support systems and economic corridors for development and livelihoods.
Appeal to international partners
We are now asking our international partners for your support for a common economic recovery plan with emphasis on practical solutions for economic growth, job-creation, and mechanisms to finance the reconstruction of our destroyed health, education and social protection systems. There are five key elements to the support that we need in our recovery efforts.
The first is building resilient public health systems with an emphasis on infection prevention and control and training community health workers, expanding coverage in rural areas, and establishing regional centers of excellence for infectious diseases. This would also include nationwide water and sanitation programs and properly equipped institutions dedicated to infectious disease control in each of the countries.
Second, we need a comprehensive focus on infrastructure to connect our countries by road, power and telecommunications. We are asking the African Development Bank to take the lead in creating an infrastructure fund, as an extension of the existing Mano River Initiative launched in 2013 to promote regional integration in the four countries, largely through transportation and electricity infrastructure. We must recognize that programs that were originally planned a decade ago must now be executed with urgency.
Third, we need support for private sector-led recovery and assistance to mitigate the rising costs of doing business in the region.
This would include ensuring access to credit for the local private sector, technical support for policy reforms and financing and risk guarantees for foreign investors. Importantly, we need the resumption of normal air travel routes into and out of our countries as a key transport channel for business in the region.
Fourth, while the private sector will create the opportunities to improve livelihoods and reduce poverty longer term through employment, in the immediate term vulnerable groups most affected by the Ebola crisis need our dedicated support. We lack comprehensive social safety nets and need technical and financial support to provide targeted cash transfers and other support to survivors, orphans and families worst affected by the economic downturn in our countries as a matter of urgency.
Finally, we are asking for a total cancellation of our foreign debt, as per the recommendation of the United Nations' Economic Commission for Africa and the African Union. This would allow us to recover the necessary budget flexibility to co-finance the rebuilding of our health systems with international support.
We urge our international partners to engage in our recovery plans in the same spirit of urgency and collaboration that has helped us fight Ebola. With your help, we can build health systems, infrastructure, and regional integration structures that will be stronger than before the epidemic hit.
We bear a collective responsibility for the thousands of lives lost and tens of thousands more affected. We have a collective obligation to build back national, regional, and international systems that protect the lives and future of our people.