Ebola understandably strikes terror in the hearts of anyone living in the three countries, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, most impacted by the current outbreak. The virus has killed many; conservative estimates are at around 4,500. Should though the rest of world resort to wholesale panic? It is a disease of equatorial climates, with each outbreak traced to the eating of, or contamination from, bushmeat; and if proper protections are in place, so the experts tell us, the risks are manageable.
Before the arrival of Thomas Duncan in Dallas, Texas, the debacle of his early care and his subsequent death from Ebola, there was a certain arrogance – along the lines of it couldn’t happen here because: our healthcare system is equal to none; this is an educated nation; and most worryingly, safeguards are in place, don’t worry we are prepared. But no amount of wishful thinking on the part of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) who do not actually have any real powers, healthcare corporations, and let’s not forget the politicians, can wholly prepare for the arrival of a deadly virus at any given hospital in the country. It is unreasonable to expect.
However now it has arrived there is no excuse for the lack of clear guidance given those who have come into contact either with a patient, or his or her bodily fluids. Flying on a commercial plane, or boarding a cruise ship would seem the ultimate risk with regard to spreading the contagion by such people. The healthcare worker on the Carnival ship had been self-monitoring for 19 days before taking the cruise (21 days is the given criteria for symptoms to appear), and has since voluntarily remained in isolation with her travelling companion until the ship returns to Galveston, where I suppose they will be whisked away. Neither Belize nor Mexico has allowed the ship to dock, which to use a much-favoured expression at the moment, is “due to an abundance of caution”; something that was not used when the second nurse from Dallas to have contracted Ebola, did report an elevated temperature before her return flight from Cleveland. Why though, was she allowed to board the initial flight from Dallas? Her actions, the return flight okayed by the CDC, just might have endangered others.
Political pundits are baying for blood and someone on whom to lay blame for the lack of overall responsibility, but the states themselves must take some of that blame. This is a country where each state jealously guards its own laws and rights, it is not surprising therefore there is no cohesive federal policy in place for dealing with a disease like Ebola.
There is an appalling lack of awareness among many in this country, and other developed countries, of just how desperately poor many people are in many parts of the world. How education is a privilege for children in developing countries, rather than a burden to be suffered, or avoided. How bush meat, however abhorrent it seems to us to eat monkeys and bats, is for some the only available protein. How sanitation, electricity and clean water are not on tap. How healthcare is primitive in many areas, rural or urban: when there are only a handful of doctors in a country it is no surprise traditional healing methods are those trusted over foreign practices.
West Africa is an area where friendships, business meetings, exchanges in the market, are all marked by a two-cheek kiss, or a handshake – it is the culture. Changing long-held customs and beliefs, especially with regard funeral rites and honouring ancestors is a challenge, even in the face of terrible epidemics, that could take generations to alter, and even then only with the true conviction and tangible support of politicians.
So what can the West do to help? Throwing funds at a developing country does little to actually change the infrastructure when money, and supplies, are often siphoned off by corrupt individuals. Sending troops to build isolation units, and medical personnel of course provide immediate help, but long-term solutions have to be found. And a good start is with education, and the encouragement for greater transparency of governments. More countries signing on to initiatives, such as the EITI, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, “a global coalition of governments, companies and civil society working together to improve openness and accountable management of revenues from natural resources”, is another way to ensure governments work for the good of the people, and not themselves.
What doesn’t help is the banning of flights from countries under the scourge of Ebola – that just sends people underground, discourages honest reporting of whereabouts, and lessens the ability to get supplies and personnel in. But stricter scrutinization, and possible quarantine, of people arriving from affected countries, whatever route, is surely a good idea.
Now is not the time for pissing contests between countries, states, healthcare organizations and politicians. Now is the time for wholesale cooperation if Ebola is not to spread globally, and Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are not to be to decimated.