The Ebola crisis: lessons learned

When the first case of Ebola was identified in Guinea in March 2014, the Embassy of Guinea scrambled to put in place an action plan. Ambassador Paul Goa Zoumanigui reflects on the role diplomatic missions can play in responding to an epidemic and post-pandemic planning

In the early stages of the Ebola epidemic, the Embassy of Guinea encountered three major challenges in mounting a response, explains Ambassador Zouomanigui.

Ambassador Paul Goa Zoumanigui

The first was establishing channels of communication with key stakeholders, including other affected countries, the British government, media and NGOs.

Conveying accurate information about the types of assistance required and the worst affected areas was the first priority but as a Francophone mission in London with fewer traditional channels of communication, this was difficult, says the Ambassador.

“Despite the frustration, a lesson the epidemic taught me was to not give up building the relations between Guinea and the UK.”

The media was helpful in raising public awareness in Guinea so granting journalists visas to travel to the region and report on the crisis was important, adds the Ambassador.

Persuading countries to keep their borders open to citizens from the affected countries was a challenge. Today citizens face new visa restrictions or have found that borders are closed to them. Even the Hajj Pilgrimage was cancelled because of worries over infection.

“The people and countries affected are not the ones to be stigmatised or isolated, it is Ebola that should be stigmatised and isolated,” says Ambassador Zoumanigui. “Countries need to take proper measures at their respective borders to detect affected people, to isolate and treat them. That will be more efficient in the prevention of transmission of the epidemic.”

Labour sharing
The second challenge was coordinating a response between the affected countries and their key international partners. The Ambassador refers to this as “labour sharing” where the motivation to assist an affected country was based, to a large extent, on their historic relationships, so the US took the lead on Liberia, Britain took the lead on Sierra Leone and France took the lead on Guinea.

While there was a certain logic to this and the assistance was welcomed, the ad hoc approach meant there was a lack of coordination between the three lead countries in the initial stages. “Even if all efforts are conducted in one country, if the epidemic is not eradicated in other affected countries, the danger is still going to be there,” cautioned Ambassador Zoumanigui.

Compartmentalisation of assistance was notable, not only at government level, but also among NGOs. “Most of the [British NGOs] are involved in Sierra Leone,” explains Ambassador Zoumanigui, who made efforts to meet with them to stress the importance of coordinated action.

“That opened doors to their involvement in the fight against Ebola in Guinea,” he says.

The Ambassador keeps in contact with the NGOs who he hopes will also assist in post-Ebola reconstruction. Action Aid, amongst others, is already helping to raise funds to help families or those who have lost their loved ones in Guinea.

Strengthening relations with UK-based NGOs was one of the goals the Ambassador set himself at the start of his tour of duty earlier this year; ironically it is the tragedy of the Ebola crisis that has facilitated this.

Red Cross workers in Guinea help bury bodies

Mobilising the diaspora

Thirdly, the Embassy played a critical role in mobilising and coordinating the assistance of the diaspora. Initially this was more difficult for the Guinea Embassy in the UK, explains the Ambassador, since there were no organised Guinea community structures.

One of the strategic objectives of the Embassy for 2014/15 was to create a more coherent Guinean community. The Ebola crisis brought the communities together for fundraising and lobbying efforts to help combat the disease. The National Day celebration was used as a rallying point to bring people together.

As a result, the Coordination of Guinean Associations in the UK has been established with the aim of establishing the Bureau of the Guinean Community in the UK to facilitate communication among the Associations.

The Liberian diaspora engaged in similar grassroots initiatives such as the UK-Liberia Ebola Taskforce. The three missions participated in the Elbow Out Ebola Conference organised by civil society groups from all three countries.

Another important facet of diaspora engagement is sharing important advice to prevent infection if travelling to the affected countries, particularly over the festive period.

The role of the diaspora will continue to be important in mobilising support for post-Ebola reconstruction once the crisis is contained and the story has dropped off the media radar.

Long-term damage

So far the disease has claimed 1,550 lives in Guinea, and a total of 7,388. With the disease infection rates dropping off, planning needs to start for post-Ebola reconstruction, says the Ambassador, who predicts severe long-term damage to the economy and society.

“Ebola has caused moral and psychological suffering on those affected and their family members,” he says.

Schools have been closed, setting children back in their education. Ebola orphans are in dire need of support. Because of the stigma of the disease, it is harder to find foster families for surviving children.

Farmers have not been able to tend their crops in areas affected by the disease, causing an “alarming” situation of food insecurity, says the Ambassador.

The disease has taken a heavy toll on the fragile healthcare system in Guinea. Medical staff in particular have paid a heavy price with the infection of 88 health workers including 46 deaths.

As a result of staff shortages and diversions, the number of medical procedures performed in the country has declined by over 40 per cent which has had a knock-on effect on non-Ebola related deaths as well.

NHS workers in training in Sierra Leone

Economic downturn

Vulnerable: Ebola orphans are taught how to avoid infection

Since the outbreak of Ebola there has been a crippling effect on economic activity and trade in all three affected countries. According to the World Bank GDP growth estimates for 2014 have been revised sharply downward since pre-crisis estimates.

Projected 2014 growth in Liberia is now 2.2 per cent (versus 5.9 per cent before the crisis). Projected 2014 growth in Sierra Leone is now 4.0 per cent (versus 11.3 per cent before the crisis). Projected 2014 growth in Guinea is now 0.5 percent (versus 4.5 per cent before the crisis).

These projections imply forgone income across the three countries in 2014–15 of well over $2 billion (over $250 million for Liberia, about $1.3 billion for Sierra Leone, about $800 million for Guinea).

In Guinea, the Ambassador points to food security worries with an expected decline in domestic rice production by 10 per cent. Concerns over Ebola has caused a decrease in air travel to the country and hotels remain empty, affecting the tourist industry.

Container traffic at the port of Conakry has dropped by almost a third (32.3 per cent) and the number of ships is down by 9.4 per cent. There has been an increase of 25- 35 per cent of the cost of mining ocean freight.

The Embassy in London has observed a dramatic drop in visa applications, both from tourists and contractors working in the mining industry in Guinea. Investor aversion is likely to have a further knock-on effect on economic activity in 2015.

Post-Ebola reconstruction

The British Government has established a Task Force on Ebola to look into rebuilding the economies of Ebola-affected countries. There is no formal working plan yet, but contacts are ongoing, says the Ambassador.

The Embassy has received from the Government of Guinea documents on the consequences of Ebola on the economy, on agriculture and on rebuilding the healthcare infrastructure as well as an acceleration plan to eradicate Ebola.

These will be submitted to the British Government and other interested partners in the hope that it forms the basis of a coordinated reconstruction strategy.

At the very least, a sustained effort will be needed to shore up a struggling healthcare system, re-open markets and get farmers back in their fields, tourists back in hotels and children back in classrooms, while remaining vigilant for further outbreaks.

If there is one lesson learned about the Ebola crisis it is that complacency kills.