The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 24 August 2014
The devastating outbreak and spread of the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone has provoked mixed reactions in and out of the country, most of which criticises the Koroma government as inept, lethargic, corrupt, and lacking in strong leadership.
Several public officials and a handful of senior ministers are still in denial, choosing to propagate the deplorable policy of propaganda and massaging of Ebola statistics, rather than focusing on the real task of saving lives.
But this policy of Ebola propaganda has now led to an international backlash, resulting in the loss of confidence in the government’s reports as well as its efforts in combating the disease. The country’s economy has become the latest Ebola victim.
Airlines flying to the country’s airport have suspended flights. The World Health Organisation has strongly expressed concern over the government’s under-reporting of Ebola statistics.
The UN office in Freetown has now decided to seize the initiative, by taking responsibility for putting a regional-wide co-ordinated Ebola strategy in place, that will be directly managed by WHO.
This UN decision, critics say, is the strongest evidence yet, suggesting that the Koroma government has now lost the Ebola war.
Doctors are no longer prepared to work in unsafe hospitals and health centres, without the necessary protective wear, following the deaths of two of their colleagues, along with more than 70 other health workers.
Protective wear costs less than a dollar a pack to buy.
Yet, health workers in Sierra Leone are being asked by the ministry of health to wash and reuse old stock, in order to save money.
Since the uncontrollable outbreak of the virus, Sierra Leone’s media has been actively vociferous and relentless in pursuing the truth, especially regarding the government’s failure to take prompt and decisive action in combating the disease.
The minister has on several occasions threatened to jail journalists he describes as “enemies of the state” – journalists, whose only crime is that of holding the Koroma government to account as hundreds of thousands in Sierra Leone face the prospect of contracting the virus.
Such attempts to muzzle the truth surrounding Ebola, is only serving to cast further doubts in the government’s sincerity and commitment to tackle the disease, as the economy continues to plummet.
It is predicted that by the time Ebola is driven out of the country – many believe not before March 2015, Sierra Leone’s economy would be significantly damaged, with GDP poised to fall by more than 50%.
Food prices and the cost of other basic essentials have skyrocketed. Inflation has risen by almost 100% since May this year.
Herbert McLeod is a Special Adviser in the Office of the President. He has been heading President Koroma’s government team that is responsible for renegotiating the country’s mining agreements with companies.
He believes that the war on Ebola must be won in the media, especially the international media, to avert the looming economic catastrophe.
The Ebola hit countries – Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, with support from external partners are engrossed with the urgent and complex issues relating to adequacy of the resources, preventing infection and saving lives.
Sadly the coverage of the outbreak by the international media has inadvertently produced the perception and mischaracterization of the region as a no-go area.
There is therefore a growing stigmatization of nationals and travellers, and goods and services to and from the region.
The evolving nature and form of this could have disastrous economic consequences that go way beyond the sub-region, and could return the three countries to poverty levels prevalent during the earlier conflicts and periods of instability.
All three countries plus Nigeria must take a concerted action now to nuance, if not change the image of the region as being a no-go area. And in this they need the support of the international community.
There is insufficient emphasis and clarification on the methods of transmission of the disease. The prevalent impression is that it is easily transmitted as in the case of influenza.
In fact it is transmitted through bodily fluids (similar to HIV) and is not contagious unless the patient is displaying symptoms. This explains, partly, why Ebola occurred three times in Uganda but did not deteriorate into an epidemic.
In the case of the current three countries, failure to contain the spread was due to weaknesses in the health system; and this is now being addressed.
At worse, statements by WHO – including warning that Kenya was at high risk of transmission because of flights to West Africa, tended to feed the hysteria and had very damaging consequences.
Tourists responded by cancelling trips to Kenya and countries as far away as South Africa. Kenya responded by cancelling flights to the affected countries.
The suspension of flights to and from the region feeds into the media-generated hysteria.
There is hardly any mention made of the steps taken to prevent the spread by the potential carriers before travelling, including through checking the temperature of all exiting travellers.
With the exception of Nigeria, there has been no other case of infection by other carriers from the sub-region: suspected cases have proved negative.
Yet some airlines have cancelled flights and reportedly, Cote d’Ivoire has imposed a ban on ships berthing in any of the ports in the affected countries, unless 21 days have elapsed.
These acts tantamount to a trade and people embargo that will have far-reaching economic effects, including:
· Cancellation of new investments or expansions of operations of large mines
· Drastic cuts in tourism – already observed in S. Africa
· Shortages of spare parts and other imported goods
· Cancellation of meetings in the sub-region – already done by certain organisations
· Non-participation of nationals in international forums of economic, political and social importance, even sports events Potentially a shortage of fuel which could have devastating consequences
Governments of the three countries plus Nigeria, should act now in changing the image created by the media including social media, and should not shy of getting support from major news channels for this.
The announcement by Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea of embargoes could be the start of a domino effect that will have far-reaching repercussions for the continent.