Confronting COVID-19: lessons from Ebola – OPINION

NBE Blog

By Mabingue Ngom – The world is facing unprecedented times. The Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic currently afflicting our world is redefining the way of life as we know it. It is clear that the world is facing one of its worst social and economic emergencies in history. Its impact on Africa could be long and lasting.

Just like the rest of the world, the continent has shut down and a new norm is emerging as the Covid-19 takes its toll within Africa’s borders. However, even though Covid-19 has altered lifestyles, redefined work places, increased telecommuting and changed social norms it is significant to recall that this is not the first time we have had to contend with the dangers of serious and fatalistic infectious diseases.

There are painful yet worthwhile lessons from West Africa, which would be a good start for the continent as it grapples with the challenge of containing this virus. In West Africa we have had the misfortune of enduring fatal outbreaks such as Ebola, Zika and Buruli Viruses among other highly contagious diseases. These maladies have left us with indelible scars but have also built our resilience and taught us crucial lessons of survival. We share these lessons from Ebola experienced by West Africa to help the African continent in combating the highly infectious Covid-19.

Ebola was first discovered in 1976 in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Sudan. This disease with zoonotic origins is named after the Ebola River in the DRC. In the last 40 years 12 countries have suffered 24 Ebola virus outbreaks. Excluding the 2014-2015 outbreak, Ebola had claimed 1,548 deaths.

As it turned out the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak in West Africa happens to have been the most debilitating with the largest number of fatalities since the disease emerged.

The epidemic started in Guinea and spread its virulence to Liberia and Sierra Leone. By the time it was being contained in March 2016 it had reached Mali, Nigeria and Senegal infecting 28,000 people and leaving 11,301 dead. Projections were much higher before the united and concerted effort turned the tides, largely through a community-based approach.

The three severely affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone which are still healing from the wounds of long periods of conflict and instability had the accompanying tragedies of weak health systems, inadequate health workers and a general lack of supporting public health infrastructure. Not only did Ebola add a severe health burden of these three nations but it shook these countries as well.

It exposed the weak supply chains, lack of logistics support, inadequate supplies of essential equipment and commodities. Added to these strategic stresses were genuine fears by health workers afraid to contract Ebola. All these compounded to decrease the level of health services provisions and increased risks.

The lowest point of it all was community resistance which heightened Ebola’s stigmatization as communities resisted visits and attendance to health facilities for fear of contracting the virus. Worst hit by this fast rising stigma were pregnant women in dire need of constant medical observation, exposing maternal and neonatal health to ip[;ncreased mortality and morbidity.

These devastations severely tested the socio-economic fabric of the region, but did stop these countries from putting up a brave fight against the virus. The fight against Ebola was another test of international solidarity. On 8th August 2014 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the situation as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

A month later the United Nations established the first-ever UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER). The African Union (AU) established and deployed the AU Support to Ebola Outbreak in West Africa (ASEOWA) with representatives from the AU Commission, UN agencies and partners, including the private sector. UNFPA was one of the partners, and one of the awardees of the AU special prize in recognition of its efforts to fight Ebola.

Fully aware of the dangers posed by Ebola from past outbreaks the UNFPA regional office for West and Central Africa swiftly mobilized logistical support by acquiring personal protection equipment (PPEs) for frontline health staff, secured financial, technical resources, trained and deployed staff to the frontline of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

A recovery plan was also drawn, putting children, young people and women’s issues at the core of the agenda and a new impetus to rebuild inexpensive yet effective resilient health systems was put in place to help the affected governments cope with the disease and trauma.

It is on this occasion that we launched the comprehensive contact tracing mobile phone application (App) to help identify the affected, provide treatment and contain the spread. The “CommCare” app was used to locate contacts in real time and transfer the data collected by the community workers to the main monitoring cell. One of the greatest successes of this App is that it not only saved time but also helped coordinate responses and enabled communities to participate in the fight against Ebola.

To structure and kick-start its response, UNFPA mobilized its internal resources, gathered all the professionals and skilled competencies at our disposal and reprogrammed the budgets of the affected countries for the Ebola response. This included setting up an ad hoc ‘cross-unit Ebola Cell’ within our West and Central African region where we work covering some 23 countries and fast-tracking all protocols to secure essential commodities, equipment and other supplies needed in the frontline.

The 2014-2015 experience marked a watershed experience for us. It was not a good experience, but we had to learn it so that we can avoid the pain and devastation that these infectious diseases created on families, communities and countries. Given our past experiences with Ebola in the region, and now being confronted by Covid-19 we will be improving on what we already know about pandemic management and sharing our lessons with others.

EDITOR’S NOTE- Mabingue Ngom is the Regional Director of the UNFPA-West and Central African Regional Office. He oversees 23 countries.