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Ebola reinforces wrong perceptions about Africa


Poor Africa, she never seems to get a break from the daily deluge of negative news; several misconceptions abound about Africa.  News from the continent consist primarily of heart-wrenching accounts of famine, disease, poverty and conflict and mouth-dropping tales of corruption, graft and bad governance.

Attribute this negative news coverage to conspiracy by the western media to malign Africa and you would not be far off the mark. To non-Africans, the continent is a teeming zoo, inhabited by ignorant and uncivilized people. Far more absurd and preposterous is the view that Africa is a failed continent with no redeeming qualities.

Of course, Africa is obviously not a failed continent, far from it; when it comes to economic performance, six of the ten promising and fastest growing economies in the world are on the continent.  Be that as it may, Africa potentially can end poverty and keep diseases at bay.  But that requires capable and dedicated leadership from its political and economic elite.

The outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa, first in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and then in Nigeria and Senegal, has once again revealed the many vulnerabilities of the continent and the difficulties it faces in bringing first class health care to her citizens and also tested the leadership qualities of her political classes.

The disease, the World Health Organization says, is the largest Ebola outbreak in history and the first in West Africa and it has cut a deadly trail across a large swath of West Africa, overwhelmed rickety healthcare systems and devastated communities.

With no known cure, Ebola is frighteningly real. And long before it is stopped and effectively brought under control, the disease will continue to wreak havoc on a region notorious for weak governments and corruption.

Ebola has also predictably reaffirmed the fears, suspicions and loathing of Africa. Anne Coulter, a Republican Party neoconservative of the highest order was acerbic in her comments about Africa recently.

Complaining about Dr. Kent Brantly the American mercy worker who labored in Liberia and contracted the Ebola virus — he has since recovered —- she said, “Christians go on mission trips to disease ridden cesspools,” with obvious reference to Africa. “If he had provided health care for the uninsured workers in Hollywood, he would have done more good than marinating himself in medieval diseases in the Third World,” she continued.

Ms. Coulter is no stranger to controversy; her assertions are reflective of the mindset of millions in the world beyond Africa. Sadly, Africa’s economic and political leaders have not helped in changing minds abroad. Through their sheer irresponsibility and benign neglect, our leaders have enabled diseases like Ebola to take root and the likes of Ms. Coulter to spew their nonsense.

West African governments, who for most part, are often ill-prepared for disasters of any kind —- be it outbreaks of diseases or natural disasters —- were caught flatfooted by Ebola and are thus struggling mightily to cope with the deadly disease which at last count had killed nearly 3000 people and sickened 5500 others in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal. Even with assistance from the World Health Organization, the International donor community, the International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and International NGOs, it is still going to be an uphill task.

Liberia and Sierra Leone with fragile economies and having just emerged from years of civil strife are bearing the brunt of the virus’ onslaught. So far, they have recorded the highest number of deaths. Various factors have helped the virus to spread as fast as it has: acute lack of infrastructure (roads, bridges,) rudimentary healthcare systems, poor governance, ignorance and mistrust of health care workers.

Anytime a disease ravages Africa, our leaders become tone-deaf; it is an open secret that governments in West Africa pay lip service to healthcare, an important cog in the wheel of national development> They spend less on the sector much to the peril of their citizens. There are few hospitals and clinics, and most are poorly staffed as locally trained healthcare workers find lucrative gigs abroad.

Sierra Leone is an example par excellence of a nation that spends very little on its healthcare sector—total expenditure on health per capita, that is, the amount of money the government spent on each Sierra Leonean citizen was $205 in 2012. This was up from $69 in 2011.  But the sad story does not end there; from 1997 to 2010, there were only 2 doctors and 17 nurses and midwives per100, 000 Sierra Leonean citizens. Liberia depends heavily on external resources for 90 percent of its healthcare needs.

Many readers will remember the many challenges our own Tamale General Hospital faced a few years ago and the seemingly interminable time it took various governments to come around to the task of renovating and upgrading the institution. The hospital may have the trappings of a modern, well-equipped facility, but in the sad event that a major outbreak of a deadly disease occurs, are there adequate resources in terms of staff, medicine and technology to stave off the killer disease? Your answer is as good as mine.

Reports have it that the Ebola virus has been contained in Nigeria and Senegal. That is a welcome relief from the cascade of dreadful news from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The outbreak of the disease should be a teaching moment for our political leaders; the need for new thinking on healthcare in the region is urgently needed if the deaths of nearly 3000 West Africans are to mean anything.


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