Confronting coronavirus: Lessons from Ebola virus

Monday, May 18th, 2020 00:00 |
World Health Organisation. Photo/Courtesy

Mabingue Ngom  

The coronavirus  pandemic is redefining the way of life as we know it.  The world is facing one of its worst social and economic emergencies in history.

Its impact on Africa could be long and lasting. Just like the rest of the world, the continent has shut down and a new norm is emerging as the Covid-19 takes its toll. 

While Covid-19 has altered lifestyles, redefined work places, increased telecommuting and changed social norms, it is significant to recall that this is not the first time we have had to contend with the dangers of deadly infectious diseases. 

There are painful, yet worthwhile lessons from West Africa, which would be a good start for the continent as it grapples with the challenge of containing this virus.

In West Africa, we have had the misfortune of enduring outbreaks such as Ebola, Zika and Buruli viruses, among other highly contagious diseases.

These diseases have left us with indelible scars but have also built our resilience and taught us crucial lessons of survival.

We share these lessons from Ebola experienced by West Africa to help Africa in combating Covid-19.

Ebola was first discovered in 1976 in Democratic Republic of Congo and the Sudan. This disease with zoonotic origins is named after the Ebola River in the DRC.

In the last 40 years, 12 countries have suffered 24 Ebola outbreaks. Excluding the 2014-2015 outbreak, Ebola had claimed 1,548 deaths. 

The 2014-15 outbreak in West Africa was the most debilitating with the largest number of fatalities since the disease emerged. 

The epidemic started in Guinea and spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. By the time it was being contained in March 2016, it had reached Mali, Nigeria and Senegal infecting 28,000 people and leaving 11,301 dead.

Projections were much higher before the concerted efforts turned the tide, largely through a community-based approach.

The three severely affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which are still healing from the wounds of long periods of conflict and instability, had the accompanying tragedies of weak health systems, inadequate health workers and a general lack of supporting public health infrastructure.

Not only did Ebola add a severe health burden of these nations, it shook these countries as well.

It exposed the weak supply chains, lack of logistics support, inadequate supplies of essential equipment and commodities.

Added to these were fears by health workers of contracting Ebola. This decreased the level of health services provision and increased risks.

The lowest point of was community resistance which heightened Ebola’s stigmatisation as communities avoided health facilities for fear of contracting the virus. 

These devastations severely tested the socio-economic fabric of the region, but did not stop these countries from putting up a brave fight against the virus. The fight against Ebola was another test of international solidarity. 

On August 8, 2014, the World Health Organisation declared the situation a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

UNFPA was one of the partners, and one of the awardees of the AU special prize in recognition of its efforts to fight Ebola.

Aware of the dangers posed by Ebola from past outbreaks, UNFPA regional office for West and Central Africa mobilised logistical support by acquiring personal protection equipment for health staff, secured financial, technical resources, trained and deployed staff to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. 

A recovery plan was also drawn, putting children, young people and women’s issues at the core of the agenda and a new impetus to rebuild inexpensive yet effective health systems was put in place to help governments cope with the disease and trauma. 

It is on this occasion that we launched the comprehensive contact tracing mobile phone App to help identify the affected, provide treatment and contain the spread. 

The “CommCare” app was used to locate contacts in real time and transfer data collected by the community workers to the main monitoring cell. 

Given our past experiences with Ebola in the region, and now being confronted by Covid-19, we will be improving on what we already know about pandemic management and sharing our lessons with others.  — The writer is the director of the UNFPA-West and Central African regional office

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