Living in the shadow of Ebola

We haveebola been living in the shadow of Ebola for six months now, here in West Africa. Can you believe that?  6 months? I didn’t at first, when I saw a headline on the UN website. So I checked back through my West Africa office weekly diary and, yes there it was on April 7th, my first reference to Ebola in Guinea.

At the time my immediate concern was twofold: would it affect our strategic partnership with Concern Universal in Guinea; was my family in Mali at risk? But I calmly put the outbreak into perspective and convinced myself that this wasn’t really something that would have a significant effect on my life.

And I wasn’t alone. In fact for the next three months Ebola was like a storm cloud on the horizon – visible, but no immediate threat. Mary Willcox, Senior Energy Expert, spoke at a renewable energy conference. Rob Cartridge, Head of Practical Answers, came to visit.

Everything changed at the end of July, just after Rob returned home. Nigeria had reported its first case of Ebola. America had decided to evacuate two health workers, infected in Liberia. Suddenly we had to face up to the fact that we are all at risk from Ebola to some extent: as Senegal discovered later in August, then the USA and now, Spain.

The good news is that Senegal’s one victim, a young man from Guinea, has made a full recovery and there was no cross infection. In Nigeria the situation is stable and as the WHO saysif Nigeria can control an outbreak caused by such a deadly and highly contagious virus, right from the start, any country in the world can do the same”.  Any country that is, which provides adequate training and good quality protective gear for all its staff all the time, and secure isolation units with beds, food, water and medicines for all the patients. Does that sound like where you live? If so, breathe a sigh of relief.

The bad news  is that, in the area where this outbreak is focused, some countries are dealing with the aftermath of terrible civil wars and healthcare systems are in collapse. To make matters worse the outbreak developed in a remote, densely populated region where traditionally people are buried in the community where they were born. So not only was it more difficult than usual to track down contacts but there were highly contagious Ebola corpses travelling across borders in all directions in pick-ups and taxis. The result was an epidemic that kept flaring up in different places. Ebola had found itself in ideal conditions for a perfect storm; when every individual circumstance is a bit worse than normal and they then combine to create a disaster.

The disaster for Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is only just beginning. With already more than 3300 dead  the number of new cases is said to be doubling every 20-30 days. The WHO predicts 20,000 cases by early November and, looking further ahead, the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) warns that if nothing changes there could be 1.4 million cases by late January.

Moreover, it is a disaster which goes deeper than the suffering of victims and their families. There are fears of food shortages as quarantines and border closures disrupt farming and pile pressure on food imports. In fact the whole economy of the sub-region is threatened mainly, say the World Bank, by costs which result from fear of contagion – for example when people don’t turn up for work, businesses are closed, flights are suspended or sea ports closed.

It is encouraging that a coordinated international response is underway at last, but will governments and frontline organisations be able to act together sufficiently quickly and at the scale required, to break the chain of transmission? Your guess is as good as mine. It is an immense logistical and human challenge and time is fast running out.

What is the effect on Practical Action? Well, with every international event which we had planned to attend or organise in Dakar, Bamako and Ouagadougou now cancelled or postponed indefinitely, the most immediate effect is that we need to completely rethink our strategy to promote Practical Answers, Knowledge Point and the Poor People’s Energy Outlook in French. Apart from this though, it is very much business as usual.

We keep calm and carry on – a bit like citizens in wartime Britain. Why? Because, what I understand now is that for as long as this storm of infection rages unchecked and possibly, for many years to come, we are all of us, everywhere, living in the shadow of Ebola.

Me, here in Dakar and you, wherever you are, too!

keep calm

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