On May 20, the World Health Organization reported a substantial increase in the weekly total of new Ebola cases in both Guinea and Sierra Leone and responded by deploying a response team. This comes in the shadow of the success in Liberia that was proclaimed to be Ebola-free in May, the result of a comprehensive response by President Barack Obama and his administration to invest in Liberia’s health care infrastructure. Although a lot of the attention to the U.S. response focused on the role of the American military, our response was actually much more thorough. The United States provided personal protective equipment, funded and trained medical workers, deployed laboratories, supported disease tracing and started a large-scale social messaging campaign to inform Liberians about practices to protect themselves from infection.
The lesson from West Africa is clear: For our own safety and for the long-term stability of the African economy we need to assist with investments in health care infrastructure of West Africa — from hospitals and clinics to medication and vaccines and training doctors and nurses.
Since the West African Ebola crisis erupted from a remote region of Guinea in December 2013, the deadly virus has severely shaken the three nations — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — at its epicenter. With more than 26,000 reported cases of infection and more than 10,000 recorded deaths, the crisis has been the largest and most geographically widespread outbreak of Ebola ever recorded. Beyond its devastating death, the crisis devastated the region’s economy. In March, the United Nations reported that West Africa, as a whole, may lose an average of at least $3.6 billion per year through 2017 due to a decrease in trade, closing of borders, flight cancellations and reduced foreign direct investment and tourism, largely fueled by the lasting stigma from the Ebola outbreak.
Additionally, the crisis became a contentious political issue as overstretched African governments with dilapidated infrastructure and poor public service sectors attempted to raise awareness amongst their terrified citizenry of a virus that had not previously been seen in West Africa. Several episodes of sporadic violence and civil unrest occurred as governments sought to initiate and maintain quarantines to halt the spread of the disease.
At the base of this crisis is a stark reality: After centuries of colonialization and war, the basic health care infrastructure in these nations lags desperately behind where it needs to be. Ebola may have caught the world’s attention, but West Africa suffers from lower life expectancy, fewer physicians and nurses, and higher maternal mortality rates than much of the world.
While Liberia was declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization in early May, it cannot be deemed fully free from the threat of Ebola while the outbreak still maintains a hold in neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone. This fact not only underscores the importance of a fully funded, regionally coordinated and sustained crisis and recovery effort, it also highlights the need to address the underlying causes of this outbreak’s devastation, specifically the inadequate and overstretched health care infrastructures of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
The Obama administration has made important steps. Earlier this year, Secretary of State John Kerry signed an agreement to help establish a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Africa. The memorandum of cooperation, signed by Kerry and the African Union Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, makes formal the relationship between the United States CDC and AUC, and it will establish an African CDC. Set to launch later this year, the African CDC will work to prevent and respond to future outbreaks on the African continent, such as the Ebola epidemic. And in April, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced plans to spend $126 million to help rebuild West African health systems impacted by the Ebola outbreak.
These are important first steps, but Congress needs to make sure it is fully funding foreign aid and assistance. Not addressing these core issues is tantamount to ignoring the lessons the current outbreak has taught us.
We need to address the underlying health care issues in West Africa or we will see Ebola or other diseases again in the United States.
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., is the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Africa Subcommittee.