The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is a tragedy. But, more than that, the response to it has been a gross failure.
It’s a classic case where early action could have saved lives and money. Yet the world dithered, and with Ebola cases in Liberia now doubling every two to three weeks, the latest worst-case estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that there could be 1.4 million cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone by late January.
We would never tolerate such shortsightedness in private behavior. If a roof leaks, we fix it before a home is ruined. If we buy a car, we add oil to keep the engine going. Yet in public policy — from education to global health — we routinely refuse to invest at the front end and have to pay far more at the back end.
We know how to confront the Ebola virus. In Uganda, an excellent prevention initiative trained local health workers to recognize the virus and stop it from spreading, so, in 2011, an Ebola outbreak there stopped after just a single case.
But Africa and Africans know too well about the apathy with which the West treats such incidences on the continent. If it were an oil find in a remote cottage in Africa, Shell, Exxon-Mobil, BP, etc. would have already drooled a hundred times over it.
We Africans know this from our catastrophic experience with AIDS a generation ago — or the introduction and mishandling of cholera by the UN in Haiti more recently — thus the imperative to stop infectious diseases early is not at all in the interest of the EU and the USA, if it is indeed in Africa.
The reaction to the Ebola outbreak after it began in December in Guinea was a global shrug: It was perhaps mishandled by local authorities, for lack of any training in handling such a virus, and by the rest of the world, so, instead of a tiny cost in money and lives to nip it in the bud, we will now all pay hugely – in African bodies, of which the world cares nothing about, and in financial terms, of which we Africans will continue to remain financially indebted to our so-called friends in the West.
One thing is for sure. If the worst-case scenario comes to pass in West Africa, it may become endemic in the region and reach the West. Ebola is quite lethal but not particularly contagious, so it presumably wouldn’t cause an epidemic in countries with well funded health systems. This entire tragedy is a failure of humanity once again to recognize that Africa is a home too, that Africans are also human!
As a few donor countries scramble to respond (which may cost $1 billion in the next six months, according to the United Nations, although nobody really knows), the risk is that they will raid pots of money intended for other vital purposes, like poverty reduction, to assist the world’s dying. Jamie Drummond of the One campaign says he worries that governments may try to finance Ebola countermeasures with money that otherwise would buy childhood vaccines or ease emerging famines in Somalia and South Sudan.
Vaccines are a bargain. Since 1990, vaccines and other simple interventions (such as treatments for diarrhea) have saved nearly 100 million children’s lives, according to Unicef. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is now in the middle of trying to raise an additional $7.5 billion to subsidize vaccinations of 300 million additional children around the world. On top of the $2 billion it has, Gavi says this would save 5 million to 6 million lives and produce economic benefits of $80 billion to $100 billion.
Such an investment should be a no-brainer. In the 21st century, we have the resources to fight more than one fire at a time. But the rest of the world’s hesitation when it comes to saving African lives is six of one that is most appalling and half a dozen of another that shows that the so-called newly evolved humans from Africa now also inhabiting other parts of the world are not at all civilized.
“I am worried,” said Seth Berkley, the chief executive of Gavi. “You wouldn’t want to reduce immunizing children around the world to deal with an emergency even as severe as Ebola.”
The US, but to mention one, invests vast sums to address national security risks that have a military dimension, hence the US President Obama’s decision to renovate the American nuclear arsenal at a cost that could reach $1 trillion over three decades. But American never remembers that infectious diseases can also constitute a national security threat.
The world’s shortsightedness, or perhaps racism, afflicts so many areas of public policy in Africa – most pressing is government. The West spends billions of dollars fighting extremists today, but doesn’t invest tiny sums educating children or empowering women in those regions, even though that’s the strategy with a solid record of success at reducing extremism in the medium and long term especially in the dace of the statistic that the US for example can finance at least 20 schools in Somalia for the cost of deploying one soldier abroad for one year.
Perhaps it is a job program for America. But they have to be contrite and tell us about their intentions. Are you willing to help or not?
Africa bears some of the blame. Such is every single problem, even in the ‘adorable West’ – the victim also shares in some of the responsibility. We in Africa do not lose sight of that calling. At home, we don’t invest adequately in family-planning programs even though pregnancy prevention initiatives for at-risk teenagers pay for themselves many times over. In the US they don’t invest in early education programs that have a robust record in reducing later criminal behavior, preferring instead to pay many thousands of times over for prisons.
Indeed, the free market has failed, and it has done it in terrible fashion. New financial instruments — social impact bonds — should be encouraged and implemented en mass to address these deficiencies if at all we should continue to accept this European School of Thought as exemplary. Such bonds pay for job training or early education programs and then earn a financial return for investors when the government saves money.
Yet the worst consequence of our myopia isn’t financial waste. It’s that people, Africans, are dying unnecessarily of Ebola. It’s immoral. And it’s the risk that the cost of the world’s mismanagement of Ebola will be borne by other African children going without vaccines.