By Morris T. Koffa
A post-Ebola agenda is a bit premature. However, I am mindful of the adage: “In times of war, prepare for peace.” It is a sobering reminder that serves as a platform for the discussion of the critical issues and the challenges that confronts us during the entire Ebola outbreak.
Early assessments from the Ebola outbreak revealed that there were serious lapses and flaws that rendered Liberia and the two other member countries in the Mano River Union (MRU) basin – Guinea and Sierra Leone incapable of containing the spread of the epidemic. Liberia has been hit the hardest with looming long-term social and economic consequences that demand the discussion of a strategic plan of action using SWOT analysis of existing infrastructures such as health, environment, emergency and disaster management to prevent or be better prepared for future disaster. Liberia is focused because of the ferocious impact that Ebola had on the country.
It is unprecedented in the history of the MRU for such an epidemic to invade the three MRU countries with such intensity. There is a lot to be learned from the
lenses of medical scientists for the world to know why such a disease that had its origin in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1976, to suddenly subside and later travel to West Africa to cause such major devastation of lives and resources.
Of particular concerns are the revealing statistics of Liberia’s confirmed cases of (6,535), deaths (2,413) as of October 30, 2014 (United State Center for Disease Control [US-CDC], 2014). Guinea, where it all started reported 1,667 confirmed cases and 1,018 confirmed deaths, while Sierra Leone has 5,338 confirmed cases and 1,510 confirmed deaths (USCDC, 2014). Nigeria has 20 confirmed cases and 8 confirmed deaths, and Senegal with one confirmed case and no death. Nigeria and Senegal have both been declared Ebola freed by the World Health Organization (WHO) (CDC, 2014). The United States of America has had 4 confirmed cases and one confirmed death, and Mali has one confirmed case and one death. Spain has had one confirmed case and no death (CDC, 2014).
Liberia made headlines around the world because of two infected Liberians who traveled outside of the country. Liberia’s confirmed cases surpassed or doubled those of Guinea, and almost doubled those of Sierra Leone. The advantage of ‘prior knowledge’ of Ebola originating from Guinea and Sierra Leone was an early warning sign that could have save lives and the environment in Liberia. Regrettably, Liberians ignored signs of the Ebola virus and didn’t think the disease even existed. As a result, residents were further exposed to the danger of Ebola, which earned Liberia the nickname as the “epicenter” of Ebola in Africa.
The situation triggered a barrage of unsolicited media hype in the US, with the assertion that Africans, particularly Liberians are synonymous with Ebola. The unsolicited publicity grew by the day, especially in the US. Some American politicians found solace in the Liberian tragedy to win political points. The US politicians even advocated banning citizens from Ebola-affected countries, even as medical experts’ advice against doing so. The medical experts emphasized that a ban would be counterproductive to the idea of treating the epidemic at its source.
There are psychological tolls associated with the stigma that all Africans, especially Liberians, are ‘considered as host of the disease.’ Many of these Africans are rejected in some parts of the US, and other parts of the world. In some cases, Liberians have been dismissed from their jobs and rejected in schools for fear of spreading Ebola. The Liberian Community in Staten Island, New York, and other areas reported such a situation. All this drama serves as a vivid reminder of the dark history of slavery in the United States, many decades
ago. One may be reminded, for example of the segregated period in the South. During this period, blacks were isolated and told to drink from separate water fountains and separate toilets. Another example was during 9-11, when some in the Muslim faith were perceived as a terrorist and outcasts in some communities. This is exactly the same stigma, borne of fear and illogical reasoning, which Africans, and particularly Liberians have been subjected to in several communities.
The Ebola outbreak has the potential of creating a state of pandemonium that could have a crippling effect on Liberia’s economy, and also could threaten the nation’s long-term development agenda. No doubt, the epidemic is a vicious killer that hasn’t spare not even a child in its path. However, when a nation strengthens its healthcare, emergency and disaster management as well as environmental infrastructures and human lives in the contemporary global environment, it can certainly slowdown the impact of a disaster in the making.
In the context of emergency and disaster management and environmental protection, there are regional and international collaborative efforts or treaties that spell out specific guidelines that member states are expected to incorporate into their developmental agenda under the concept of ‘Disaster Risk Reduction’ (DRR) to address emergency and disaster management. Interestingly, Liberia is a chartered member of the following DRR Treaties: Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Policy for Disaster Risk Reduction; Africa Regional Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction under the African Unity (AU) and the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), specifically designed and promulgated for Africa under the United Nations.
Unfortunately, Liberia has not fully complied with these basic practices of DRR, making Liberia almost unprepared to handle any disaster, even on a minimum scale.
When a hazardous event is elevated to a disaster status, it means that the impacted nation is overwhelmed by its own capacity, and therefore needs extended help under international or regional laws that govern emergency and
disaster management. These regional and international treaties strongly encourage member states to do their part. In spite of such treaties, Liberia was nowhere close to being prepared to fight the Ebola epidemic.
Let’s make no mistake. Comparing the frequency and intensity of the Ebola disaster to past or current disaster in Liberia, such as the ongoing flooding in most communities and a plethora of others disasters, maybe a bit unrealistic, but the fact remains that systemic neglect on the part of policymakers to initiate relevant and robust mitigation programs intended to build the coping capacity of vulnerable communities is quite inimical to the social well-being, heath and security of the nation and its citizens. A few of those instances of systemic neglect include:
* The 2008 incident regarding the army worm caterpillar infestation that reportedly came by way of Sierra Leone into Bong County and other nearby counties in Liberia. When it was all over, more than 100 communities were
severely impacted from the toxic feces of the worms. Such feces contaminated water bodies, including drinking wells;
* The 2006 burning of the Executive Mansion of Liberia, the home and offices of the President of the Republic of Liberia. The Executive Mansion serves as the national symbol of Liberia’s Democracy. The building remains inhabitable.
* The current state of exploring natural resources in Liberia, which has functions that are highly hazardous. The exploration activities no doubt will pose new threats to several waterways. Liberia should be able to learn from numerous resource-exploration disasters, including the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The point being made here is that Liberia is just too vulnerable for a sustainable future, and the risks are just too high to ignore. The Ebola crisis should be a wakeup call with a sense of urgency. Besides the dismal healthcare system, the state of environmental management in Liberia is just as worrisome, because it poses a serious threat to public health. Emergency and disaster management
infrastructure are extremely ineffective. Some Liberians will be quick to say that Liberia is just coming out of a civil conflict. Such an excuse will be used to justify a continuous status quo characterized by procrastination, corruption and poor governance.
There is a regional component to this episode that must not be ignored. There are three countries of the four member states of the MRU that are being impacted by the Ebola epidemic. It is therefore important to consider a plan of action that will incorporate the concept of DRR. The framework of the MRU focuses on trade and industry, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, transportation, communication national security, education, training and research and finance and administration (MRU, 2010). The Ebola epidemic that is severely ravaging three countries of the MRU should be a wakeup call for a joint task force of emergency and disaster management and disaster risk reduction in a fashion of collaboration, coordination and cooperation through an early warning system, education and research as a first line of defense.
The Africa Environmental Watch (AEW), a Liberian initiative, will engage the public and relevant institutions to address these concerns of critical importance. There is an urgent need to seize the opportunity introduced by lessons learned from the Ebola crisis to establish a platform for discussion and engagement, to decipher and develop a compass and a plan of action that will focus on education, training, research, infrastructure development and policy transformation, leading to a robust emergency and disaster management, and health and environmental capacity building.
AEW hopes also to make this discussion regional-based to deal with the potential elements of vulnerability and probability of danger in the MRU basin.
AEW recognizes the sacrifices made by individuals, organizations and nations to fight Ebola in Africa. AEW expresses condolences particularly to the healthcare workers, doctors and other volunteers who died trying to save Ebola patients. We also like to thank nations, organizations and individuals who continue to stand by Africa during these difficult times. In spite of our political differences, Liberians
are rallying around in different parts of the world, mobilizing resources in their respective organizations and forming groups for the sole purpose of providing assistance to the Liberian government and communities in Liberia. These actions are commendable. It can be said that in time of crises people often put aside political differences and unify to protect the greater good.
This reality must not be lost on Liberians.
Mr. Morris T. Koffa is an Environmental Engineer with the District Department of the Environment (DDOE), and a volunteer Emergency Liaison Officer (ELO), Emergency Response Team (ERT), Government of the District of Columbia, Washington, DC. Mr. Koffa is also a doctoral candidate at Walden University studying Public Policy and Emergency Management. Mr. Koffa is co-founder and executive director of Africa Environmental Watch (AEW), formally Liberia Environmental Watch (LEW). He can be reached at 240-417-2545 and firstname.lastname@example.org.