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Jubril Shittu: The ECOWAS response to Ebola and why Nigeria has not closed its borders

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Jubril Shittu: The ECOWAS response to Ebola and why Nigeria has not closed its borders

by Jubril Shittu

The battle to contain the spread of the deadly Ebola virus continues. The virus which has so far claimed the lives of over 4032 persons seems to be raging uncontrollably in the West African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea with new cases reported almost on a daily basis. Spain and the United States of America have also recently joined the battle to prevent further spread of the disease within their borders.

On Sunday, 12th October 2014, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) issued a press release in what seems to be the latest of its efforts in combating the deadly disease. The press release highlights ECOWAS efforts aimed at creating awareness and mobilization by various groups in tackling the virus, especially in states affected. The ECOWAS approach is quite significant as it underscores the need to address various issues critical to curbing the spread of the virus.

Ignorance, superstitious beliefs, corruption and even religion have been responsible for promoting the spread of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and even Nigeria. In Sierra Leone, the first reported case was that of a healer who died after tending to people infected with the virus. In Nigeria, two persons died of excessive intake of salt, which was rumoured to have ability to prevent Ebola infections. In Liberia, health officials were reported to be accepting bribes in order to leave bodies of dead Ebola victims with family members who want to bury them despite the risk of contacting the infection.

Due to all these reasons, the ECOWAS approach which emphasises communication and cooperation is quite laudable. However, the impact of the ECOWAS strategy may not be felt if the strategy is not backed up with financial capacity.

The importance of financial backing is to be felt when one considers the amount ECOWAS stands to lose as a result of the spread of the virus. The World Bank, in a recent economic impact assessment stated that the region stands to lose about $ 32.6 billion dollars if it does not act quickly to contain the spread. In addition the FAO has also predicted that there are also food security implications owing to the spread of the virus. In Liberia, the price of staple food is on the increase and the isolation of certain countries will only serve to exacerbate the plight of the Liberian people. The loss is also magnified especially in light of the predictions of the experts from World Health Organisation (WHO) and Imperial College London in which the number of casualties is expected to increase to 20,000 by November 2014.

On the 8th of October in Sierra Leone, Ebola burial workers went on strike to protest payment conditions. Three days later, on 12th October 2014, Liberian workers threatened to strike over issues relating to payment of their wages. There is need for funds to pay health workers and also to hire more health workers in the affected areas. It is estimated by the World Bank that at least 360 health workers are needed in Liberia alone. Although a solidarity fund has been set up by ECOWAS, so far, the financial commitments made by West African countries has not really been fulfilled. This is to be expected as most West African countries are struggling with internal security challenges. Nigeria, which contributes about 71.3% of the ECOWAS budget only contributed $3.5 million dollars to the pool fund.

In other developments, Nigeria is poised to become the first country to be declared Ebola free among the countries affected by the recent break of the Ebola virus. However, Nigeria has not and is not planning to close her borders. In fact, the only action to have been taken in response to the Ebola outbreak apart from the necessary checks at airports is the suspension by a private commercial air company, Arik Air, of its flights to Liberia. In fact, only two West African countries (Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal) have closed their borders to persons from countries affected by Ebola. The action taken by these West African countries may not be in good faith with their obligations under the ECOWAS Protocol relating to the free movement of Persons, residence and Establishment (A/P.1/5/79). The Protocol allows for free movement of ECOWAS citizens in member states.

Article 2(1) of the Protocol states that: The Community citizens have the right to enter, reside and establish in the territory of Member States.

The provisions of the Protocol is not clear as to the procedures to be followed in the event of the spread of a pandemic such as the Ebola outbreak. Quite considerably, national security considerations and lack of capacity to tackle possible outbreak of the virus may have informed the actions of most African countries who have initiated travel restrictions.

However, experts have warned that such reactionary measures may cause even further spread of the virus. According to Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): –

Involuntary quarantine and isolation of communities and regions within countries will also backfire. Restricting travel or trade to and from a community makes it harder to control in the isolated area, eventually putting the rest of the country at even greater risk. Isolating communities also increases people’s distrust of government, making them less likely to co-operate to help stop the spread of Ebola.

Therefore the focus should be on proper checks and creation of public awareness rather than spreading panic. It can only be hoped that a more proactive response will be taken by the regional body ECOWAS and the international community in tackling what is being dubbed by the United Nations Security Council as the worst peacetime humanitarian situation of all time.

– Jubril Shittu is the international affairs and public policy analyst for The Scoop

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