The Interview: Fighting Ebola
Marwa Tawfik interviews Samura M. W. Kamara (S. K), Sierra Leone’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, on the recent outbreak of Ebola in his country
By Marwa Tawfik | The AfricaPaper
TAP: What is the situation in Sierra Leone since the outbreak of the Ebola virus disease (EVD) and what is the impact of the epidemic?
Samura M W Kamara: The outbreak of the Ebola virus disease in the Mano River Basin that struck our country, Sierra Leone, in May this year, is unprecedented in the history of this disease. It is having far-reaching repercussions on the lives of the people and the entire socioeconomic fabric of the country. Over 2,500 have been infected, of which there are a little over 530 survivors.
People continue to die, children are being orphaned, most of the dead are women and over two thirds of those infected are among the most economically active age category of 15 to 50. Children are not going to school, doctors and nurses are dying, and non-Ebola illnesses are also adding to the toll of death and suffering due to the further weakening of the healthcare system in the country.
The disease has so far claimed over 1,000 lives in just five months. Educational institutions all over the country are currently shut down due to the virulent and contagious nature of the disease. Economically, Ebola has taken a very heavy toll on the country’s growth prospects. GDP is in decline from a projected 11.3 percent to 5.3 per cent this year.
Domestic prices of essential goods have risen significantly due to shortages and replacement difficulties. There are widespread disruptions to economic activities, posing a serious challenge to employment, internal revenue generation, investment, external trade and livelihoods.
Socially, EVD has altered normal cultural and traditional patterns and practices and has made its most profound impact in restricting empathetic behavioral modes. No befitting funerals for victims, body bags have replaced traditional coffins, no handshakes or hugging, family members and usually empathetic neighbors can no longer care for the sick in their usual manner, there are common-sense restrictions on celebrations of social events (naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals). At the moment, there has been no evident impact on the environment, save the extensive use of cemeteries.
TAP: How do you assess the role of the international community in dealing with the crisis? Is it up to your expectations?
S. K: The international community is currently assisting the government in its efforts to ground well-established interventions, under the aegis of the World Health Organization (WHO), in response to the epidemic. The international response had a slow start, particularly in light of the fact that the region in which EVD has surfaced had no prior experience in dealing with the disease and for the most part the three epidemic countries — Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — were post-war economies with fragile infrastructure and institutions.
About the time of the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 2177, the international community had begun to understand the profundity of the epidemic and the UN took the lead in the creation of the United Nations Mission on Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) that is in the process of deployment. Many countries have expressed solidarity with the affected countries but have not translated this into contributions, either at the UN level or in any form to the international response.
China, the United States, United Kingdom and Cuba can be singled out as having been fully committed and engaged in the fight against EVD in Sierra Leone, in addition the UN and its agencies. We have also been receiving solidarity and material support from many of African countries, including South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Uganda, among others, as well as from private sector institutions, local and international.
TAP: What do you think about the travel ban to which the three countries, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, are being subjected? What is the impact and is it a solution against the spread of the disease? What is the alternative, in your view?
S. K: We do understand the sense of fear and panic in many countries that have imposed travel bans, thereby isolating us rather than isolating Ebola. However, we have always maintained that the travel bans cannot be made without informed scientific assessments as to whether or not they are necessary. To date, the WHO does not recommend travel restrictions.
These restrictions constitute a de facto economic embargo that is contributing to further stigmatization. Their only effectiveness is to harm the economy, thwart international efforts in responding to the disease by cutting off supply routes for the flow of logistics, equipment and personnel, and to send a clear message that we are isolated and are on our own.
The alternative is to isolate the disease and not the countries. We have not brought disease unto ourselves. We are observing stringent screening measures at our airport and we are open to further suggestions and support for strengthening these travel measures. So far, and much to our satisfaction, no case has yet crossed our international borders unnoticed. This is a clear manifestation that the airport screening measures deployed are paying dividends.
TAP: Given that the rainy season normally comes with water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid, will you be able to tackle these diseases if they occur amidst the grip of the deadly Ebola disease?
S. K: Thankfully, the rainy season has come to an end and water-borne cholera or typhoid did not emerge. However, the public health sector is overwhelmed and finding it difficult to cope with the normal infectious disease burden of malaria and tuberculosis, among others.
TAP: What can Egypt and other countries do to help overcome this crisis?
S. K: No effort or contribution is ever small in a circumstance like our present predicament. Clearly, Egypt has been part of this campaign and we are looking forward to this sister nation and longstanding traditional friend and ally to step up and join forces with other countries and to provide resources, human and material as well as financial, in the fight against EVD and for post-Ebola recovery efforts. We also count on Egypt to continue to work in close collaboration with Malaysia to spearhead the mobilization of members of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) to step up to this challenge in this hour of dire need.
TAP: The UN announced many pledges but commitment levels have so far left much to be desired. How much of what has been pledged have you received on the ground? Kofi Annan expressed frustration over the tardy response of the international community towards Africa, implying that if this were happening in Europe the response would have been different. What is your comment?
S. K: I cannot tell you exactly how much funds have come directly from the UN, as we speak. However, the establishment of UNMEER and the commencement of operations in epicenter countries is a welcome endeavor. Funding continues to trickle in.
But going by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s announcement regarding the UN Trust Fund, following the donor meeting of 25 September, donor receipts have been significantly slow in coming. We are, however, highly appreciative of the efforts by China, Cuba, the United Kingdom, the United States, the international financial institutions such as World Bank, African Development Bank, and IMF, as well as the African Union and ECOWAS for their commitment of funds, personnel, equipment and food items.
Given the magnitude of this particular outbreak, vis-à-vis the shortfall of resources required, I can certainly understand the frustration of Mr. Kofi Annan, especially as the death toll continues to soar. Schools remained closed and businesses continue to shrink. Agriculture, which is the mainstay of our livelihood, remains deeply affected.
TAP: The president of Liberia demanded that for the international community stop talking theoretically and join the effort in prevent a whole generation from being wiped out by the outbreak. What is your comment on that?
S. K: President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s point was valid and legitimate. We are fully supportive of her calls to the international community to ramp up support. The three affected countries met at summit level within the framework of the Mano River Union in May and our leaders also jointly signed a letter to the secretary-general of the UN requesting a stepping up of UN intervention and support, which resulted in Security Council Resolution 2177 at its extraordinary emergency meeting. The 69th Session of the UN General Assembly subsequently passed a concurrent resolution.
TAP: Guinea postponed national day celebrations to prevent further spread of the virus. Has Sierra Leone acted similarly?
S. K: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are engaged in a life and death struggle with Ebola. As such, it comes as no surprise if Guinea should postpone national day celebrations. We instituted a three-day nationwide lock-down to conduct a house-to-house Ebola sensitization campaign on 19-21 September, and we have not had any major national celebration. I am very certain that even if there should be such an occasion, it would be low key with much reverence to our lost ones due to Ebola.
TAP: There is debate in the Confederation of African Football (CAF) on delaying the African Cup because of Ebola. What is your view?
S. K: I believe this is a matter for the CAF and African Cup hosts to decide.
The AfricaPaper – We thank correspondent Marwa Tawfik for this interview.