Eventhough news of the first Ebola case surfaced in Meliandou, Gueckdou Perfecture in Guinea in late December 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO), which is the lead U.N. agency on international health matters, first published formal notification of Ebola’s outbreak on March 23, 2014.
This was just about the same time that Ebola crossed the international borderlines of Guinea and Sierra Leone to emerge in Liberia – Lofa and Nimba Counties. As it turned out, the outbreak was largely undetected by the governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, as well as by the WHO and other international partners. Since March 2014, the disease rapidly engulfed the three Mano River Union countries, killing over 4,900 people, with Liberia alone accounting for about 2,200 deaths, and bringing Liberia along with the other two West African countries to the brink of catastrophe.
The three countries at the center of what WHO calls the “worst Ebola outbreak in history” – Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia – are weak and recovering from great internal turmoil and therefore were unable to contain the outbreak. The international community was always going to play a pivotal role in containing the spread of the Ebola virus given the little or no resources of the three most affected countries. While the governments of the West African countries that are at the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak obviously failed to handle the virus’ spread, the slow response of the international community is also blamed for contributing to the deepening of the crisis. This article seeks to explore possible factors that may explain why the international community responded slowly to the Ebola humanitarian emergency in West Africa.
In her “Letter to the World” published on the Liberian online news FrontPageAfrica and by BBC, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf alluded to the slow international response as a factor in Ebola bringing Liberia to a standstill. Since Ebola was declared by the World Health Organization a global health hazard, UN agencies and aid organizations were reported to have requested over $980 million dollars to combat the disease. However, as of October 24, donors have only contributed a little over $400 million. Recently, UN Ebola Chief Anthony Banbury estimated the cost of tackling Ebola due to the slow response by the international community at $1bn dollars.
In line with this estimation, the United Nations created an Ebola Trust Fund to raise such amount, but the Trust has so far received only $100,000. Three possible factors were identified to explain the initial slow response by the international community. These factors were: donor fatigue, indifference factor, and the factor of underestimation and/or surprise.
Africa has been the hardest hit with donor fatigue than any other region of the world since the official end of the Cold War. There are lots of reasons for this, but chief among these reasons is the global perception that Africa, unlike other regions, has failed to take ownership for its development. In order to address the problem of donor fatigue and to ensure vital donor support for Africa’s development, several quasi-international bodies were created, notably the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) and the U.S.-sponsored New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). All these bodies were supposed to keep Africa on the international donor agenda.
Donor fatigue had already begun to manifest itself in Liberia long before the outbreak of Ebola. An example of this has been the increasing international demand to downsize or completely withdraw UN peacekeepers from the country. Donors had slowed down funding for several other projects in Liberia. The general perception has been that 11 years after the end of the civil crisis, Liberia had not taken ownership of its future development. The country under the current defense minister was making little effort to take ownership of its own security and defense. A reason why donors responded slowly to Ebola in Liberia was due to the global perception, confirmed by my discussions with several U.S. policymakers that the Liberian government was not taking ownership of the campaign to contain the virus, but instead heavily at community was characterized by such thinking as ‘if there isn’t any money, we will do nothing.’ As we now see, this type of attitude proved disastrous for Liberia.
UTTER INDIFERENCE TO AFRICA?
Recently, Kofi Annan, former UN secretary general, stated in a BBC interview that there was a sharp contrast in how the world was responding to the Ebola crisis in Africa with other global crisis such as the 2004 great tsunami in Southeast Asia, or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. He was quoted as saying that “if the crisis had hit some other region, it probably would have been handled very differently.” Whether intentional or not, Mr. Annan’s statement focused attention on the level of global indifference to Africa, and double standards on how the world handles emergency humanitarian crisis.
However, face with the possibility of this virus spreading beyond Africa, the global community was prompted to respond in a much swifter way. The credit for this goes to Thomas Eric Duncan, who became the first person diagnosed with the disease in the United States. Mr. Duncan received different treatment from those rendered to others infected with the disease, including Americans Ninan Pham, Amber Vinson, and NBC news freelancer Ashoka Mukpo who were treated in one of four specialized medical facilities set aside for the treatment of Ebola in the United States. As noted by CNN columnist John D. Sutter in an op-ed published online by CNN on October 17th, prior to Mr. Duncan’s arrival in the U.S., many Americans cared less about the thousands the disease was killing in West Africa. Ebola was primarily seen as a West African problem. Mr. Duncan’s illness did for Liberia and the other affected West African countries what they couldn’t do all by themselves – to awaken American and western public interest in the seriousness and importance of tackling Ebola as a global threat, and not just an African problem.
THE WORLD ‘NOT PREPARED’
Anthony Banbury, the head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response based in Accra Ghana, recently stated in an interview with U.S. news network NBC that circumstances surrounding the Ebola outbreak were unprecedented mainly because the international community could not anticipate the spread of the disease. NBC quoted him as saying that “the world was not prepared for an outbreak of Ebola like this nature. The reasons he gave for the lack of anticipation on the disease’s spread was that the world had never before seen “… [Ebola] spreading in wide geographical areas, spreading in urban settings, densely populated urban settings.” He went on to say that “the previous outbreaks had been small and localized.”
While the governments of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were unable to effectively deal with the outbreak of Ebola, the failure of the international community to initially respond swiftly inevitably deepened the Ebola outbreak and caused the situation to go out of control. Three outstanding factors explain the slow response by the international community: donor fatigue, an attitude of indifference to Africa, and abject under-estimation of the disease’s capability to threaten international security.
Two important lessons may be drawn from this Ebola crisis – one for African governments, and the other for the international community. First, this crisis offers African governments like the one in Liberia the opportunity to resolve to take more ownership for the direction of their countries’ development instead of relying heavily on external assistance to clean up their mess. This requires creative thinking and efficient use of national resources. Second, the international community needs to do more to help Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone empower themselves by providing them with intellectual and financial resources to build strong governance institutions. Since 1976 when Ebola was first identified to the current outbreak in West Africa, this virus has shown that the African continent as a whole remains a vulnerable place as its leaders are still evidently unable to creatively think through solutions to national disasters and serious public health issues.
Cecil Frank is a Liberian specialist on public administration and international relations. He is currently a Law and Public Policy PhD candidate at Walden University, and a founding member of the Coalition of Concerned Liberians (CCL). For comments on this article, please email the editor or contact him at email@example.com.