Lessons from West Africa’s response to Ebola outbreak

Thursday, June 4th, 2020 00:00 |
President Dr Julius Maada Bio, of Sierra Leone.

Mabingue Ngom

Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio knows what a pandemic can do to a country’s socio-economic pillars and even national psyche.

His country together with Guinea and Liberia survived the ravages of the Ebola outbreak.

It, therefore, comes as no surprise to see how like many other African leader, he has shown commendable leadership in response to Covid-19 pandemic.

Immediately the virus threat was identified, even before Sierra Leone registered its first case, Maada established an inter-ministerial committee to guide on policy in relation to coronavirus; activated the national emergency operation centre to level two; heightened risk communications, rapid training and prepositioning of supplies at strategic locations and enhanced the country’s diagnostic health laboratory facilities. 

All these measures, which are similarly being implemented across the continent, are a reminder of the key lessons learned in combating emerging pandemics such as Covid-19 that has redefined our lifestyles. 

There is a general perception that West and Central Africa regions were ready for the pandemic in terms of preparedness.

The emergency responses that the region is pursuing such as the rapid mass testing, fully equipped field hospitals, contact-tracing, disease surveillance and community level pandemics management approaches seem to lend credence to this view.

This observation has made many to wonder how the region appears to be primed for a pandemic of such a magnitude and yet it faces myriad other challenges, such as political upheavals, extremist groups, high levels of poverty and a severely constrained education and health system. 

The perception stems from our past misfortunes of dealing with contagious infectious outbreaks. 

Our experiences with Zika Virus, Buruli ulcers and more recently the Ebola Viral Disease epidemics in our backyard helped enrich our knowledge pool as we were forced to suffer emerging viruses.

These sporadic and fatalistic outbreaks bolstered our resilience and capacity to adapt. 

Given such an outlook, it is imperative that Africa builds on the lessons learned to ensure we respond more effectively to Covid-19.

In as much as the African continent may lack strong health systems as compared to other regions in the world, it is clear we are leveraging on the continental experience of dealing with the Ebola Viral Disease and so far it seems that Africa is performing relatively well. Stringent measures by governments helped countries to buy time to flatten the curve. 

However, of priority to us as UNFPA has been the enhancement of public communications as a crisis management tool.

Just like all previous lethal syndromes, Covid-19 also comes with the greater public responsibility tagging alongside the social ill of stigma. 

Our concern as UNFPA was especially drawn to myriad cases among pregnant women who needed treatment or were about to deliver, posing a serious threat to maternal and neonatal health that resulted in increased Given the serious implications of  Covid-19 to economies and social political structures, strategic and well-timed mass communication messaging becomes an important ally of public health as it helps demystify the science, simplifies the medical language and curtails misconceptions while warding off humiliation.  

Our experience shows that when we engage communities with the right information we expunged all stigma associated with the diseases. 

Other continents can learn from Africa by borrowing the measures that changed the course of Ebola.  —The writer is Regional Director, UNFPA-West and Central African Regional Office

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