With a coordinated response, the virus can be vanquished, writes Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Financial Times by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
October 7, 2014
When the Liberian-American Patrick Sawyer arrived at Lagos airport on July 20, he immediately collapsed. Rushed to hospital, he was diagnosed with Ebola and died within five days. There would be seven more fatalities in Nigeria following his arrival. Yet it could have been far worse.
Ebola has the power to terrify, partly because of the distressing nature of its symptoms, but also because of the reputation it has developed: of being unstoppable. This is false. Through decisive leadership, with the right resources and a highly co-ordinated response, the virus can be managed and overcome, as the experience of Nigeria proves.
Speed is vital. Soon after Sawyer’s death, President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency and the Lagos state government acted decisively to contain the virus. Protective gear, isolation tents, thermometers and millions of hand sanitisers were flown in. Health workers, under the leadership of the health ministry, used contact tracing, isolation, treatment and massive public awareness campaigns to tackle the disease. Of 19 confirmed cases, 12 recovered. At present, there are no known cases of the virus in Nigeria.
Control of the disease has proved more challenging for Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Nigeria’s experience – which began with a single patient who was quickly quarantined – is clearly different from these countries, where the virus often spread through remote communities for weeks and months before it was recognised. These are trying times for these nations, and we feel as one with them. The economic consequences are of great concern: the International Monetary Fund estimates growth in 2014 could decline by 3 to 3.5 percentage points in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and by about 1.5 points in Guinea. This is a significant blow to nations that had worked so hard to overcome years of conflict. The global response should be twofold. We must give money, equipment and expertise to these countries in their time of need. Nigeria has donated $3.5m, in addition to other forms of assistance. Working with partners, it stands ready to do more.
Second, when the word “Ebola” can cause so much fear, we must be specific about describing the scale of the outbreak. There are 16 countries in west Africa and 54 on the continent. So far, only five countries in west Africa have recorded cases of Ebola – Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal. While there is little room for complacency, the latter two countries have contained the disease and have no more Ebola cases.
Referring to broad regional aggregates such as “west Africa” and “Africa” when talking about Ebola risks undermining all African countries. This could scare away vital investment and trade. There are already signs some insurance companies are refusing to cover travellers to west Africa. Despite advice to the contrary from the World Health Organisation, some airlines have introduced flight bans. In August, Korean Air halted its three weekly flights to Kenya. Some countries have banned nationals from Ebola-affected countries. The tourism sector in Gambia has been hit hard. Ghana, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria have seen the cancellation of some international meetings. There has been an impact on hotel occupancy rates in these countries.
Africa has fought hard over the past two decades to make economic progress. Before Ebola, the continent’s image as an investment destination, rather than a proving ground for aid, had begun to be cemented.
As the international community works to tackle this virus, we must ensure that the hard won economic progress of African countries is protected. For it is these gains that will help defeat Ebola today, and ultimately prevent its resurgence in the future.
The writer is Nigeria’s minister of finance and economy