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Ebola: What has Africa learnt?

Current Affairs

Ebola: What has Africa learnt?

The Ebola crisis ravaging some parts of West Africa has revealed the hollowness of African institutions despite the shiny “Africa Rising” narrative. Can Africa draw lessons from elsewhere? Onyekachi Wambu explores. 

Between 1346 and 1665, Europe was devastated by different waves of a plague caused by fleas living on black rats. The much written about 14th century plague is estimated to have wiped out between 30 and 60 per cent of Europe’s population.

In the absence of any cure, or understanding of how it was transmitted, such devastation understandably produced fear, terror and total confusion.

The Ebola crisis across West Africa has not yet had the devastating impact of Europe’s 14th century plague, but the impact of Ebola in the current crisis in some parts of West Africa is already substantial. Over 1,000 people have so far died in at least three countries – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – countries which are now effectively quarantined. Sporadic cases have been reported in Nigeria and DRCongo. 

International flights to the worst-affected countries have been halted and their citizens denied entry into other African countries. Apart from the devastation that the disease is ravaging on the affected people, the economic consequences that will be borne out of the Ebola crisis for poor countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia will be massive.

The threat Ebola poses in its current state, let alone if it mutates, is beginning to focus minds around a number of core issues. First there is the urgent need to radically rebuild the African state, and its key institutions.

As an equal opportunities killer, targeting poor and rich, even the middle class cannot avoid it by jumping on a plane to seek medical treatment abroad. Increasingly they now understand the importance of investing in and strengthening healthcare systems so that the virus can be managed and contained.

Second, we also now understand the huge risks around expecting others who do invest in research and new medicines, to automatically share their successful results. Their responsibilities are to their shareholders and citizens, as ours should be to ours.

Third, prevention is better than cure so massive awareness campaigns need to discuss approaches to public health. Fourth, widespread ignorance and superstition are fatal – allowing a dangerous disease to spread rapidly – with desperate relatives taking the sick to the ‘native doctor’ or preachers promising ‘annointed water’ miracle cures.

Fifth, there have been indications that at the highest level we are finally putting away childish things, by cracking down on threats to the scientific, evidence-based approach to problem solving. Nigerian leaders, who previously pandered to ‘miracle’ preachers, have warned the so-called Prophet T.B. Joshua, to desist promoting miracle cures or face being shut down.

In Europe, people suffering from delusions of being God’s instruments on earth, are usually safely locked-up in a hospital or avoided by the public as they shriek their nonsense on the sidewalks in their frayed and tattered clothes.

In Africa, not only do we not avoid them, we celebrate, enrich and enable them to fly their own private jets.

During Europe’s plague, many initially thought that the final judgement was at hand. But it was a strange kind of final judgement, that didn’t end in a great cataclysm. So they sought answers and refuge in the Church.

Priests, who duly became infected themselves, died in huge numbers, undermining their claims to be instruments of God. A bewildered, terrified and panicking population blamed the plague on witches, Jews, and many other scapegoats. As the devastation continued society began to change its response to the plague radically.

Moral and sexual codes loosened, and the huge numbers of the dead severely weakened feudalism, leading ironically, to the growth of a middle class.

But perhaps the most profound impact was how the authority of the church began to collapse, with more people beginning to seek a more personal relationship with God, away from clerical authority. Others began to directly challenge the Church’s authority. Will we see this in Africa?

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Written by Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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