Saturday, August 30, 2014

Ebola: Let us dial down the hysteria

The first reported victim of the deadly virus was a 2-year old Guinean who died on 6th December 2013.

By late March, according to the Huffington Post and Bloomberg, Ebola had killed 66 people, and by April, it had crossed the border into Liberia.

In early July, the death toll had reached 600 and climbing.  Despite the rapid spread of the virus, the world community didn't start paying serious attention to the problem until a couple of months ago.

While the virus was picking up speed, the World Health Organization (WHO) was predicting on May 8th that it was in its last days.  International response was undoubtedly slow.  Medical officials and governments had been equally slow in their respective responses.

The Guinean president left the crisis behind, even though Guinea is considered the epicenter, to attend the US-Africa Summit, while his counterparts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire stayed home to manage the outbreak.

The rapid spread of the virus to Sierra Leone, then to parts of Nigeria, and now a single case in Senegal, has has finally driven the message home, that the Ebola is not on its last days.   In fact, the WHO is now estimating that there could be 12,000 cases already.  It is being reported that half of all those infected have died, and in a worst case scenario 10,000 people would have died when everything is said and done, based on WHO's estimate that 20,000 people will be infected in West Africa.

The slow response in tackling the virus is as undesirable and a hysterical approach to it, as we are beginning to notice, especially in social media.  Understanding the nature of the virus, how it spreads, preventative measures, role of local health authorities and interior ministries responsible for border control go a long way in mitigating.

We need to dial down the hysteria, especially at a time when local authorities in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are beginning to get a handle of the problem.  To do otherwise is to distract from the real problem of containing the virus from spreading from the epicenter to front line countries like Senegal, Guinea, Mali and The Gambia.

Politicization of the diedliest Ebola in human history is unacceptable and should be discouraged.  Apart from the human toll the virus is likely to claim, the economic and financial costs, we will come to realize, are going to be astronomical when all is told.

The affected countries have already started seeing cancellations of charter tourist flights which threaten the 2014/15 tourist season.  In The Gambia, a tour operator has already announced cancellations of scheduled flights for now which is subject to review in December.  It will not come as a surprise if other operators to not follow suit.  For countries that depend heavily on tourism like The Gambia specifically and other countries in the region, the impact of their respective budgets could be devastating.

Tourism contributes 10% to Gambia's GDP, down from 12% in 2011 - a sector that was on the path to recovery but will be slowed in the coming year even if all (but one) the other tour operators decide to start the season as scheduled.  Many hotels are staring closure in face which threatens the jobs of many hotel workers in an economy that is under-performing.

The potential devastation of the virus cannot be underestimated, and neither are we trying to trivialize or minimizing the horrendous misery of contracting Ebola, but we must also put the virus in proper perspective. If it helps, HIV/AIDS is considered to be a super-disease because of the complex nature of the virus.  It is more complex and because of it, it took over 15 years and millions of lives before antiretroviral therapy came into the picture.  Although the therapy is still unavailable to millions of Africans, it has more to do with politics and costs than technical constraints.  Malaria, on the other hand, kills millions more each year.

We must be mindful of these facts in dealing with the Ebola outbreak.  Yes, the potential of it turning into a pandemic is real, but we must also cast it in realistic terms.  We cannot, however, do so if, we, the social media activists, do not fully understand the problem that allows us to put it in its proper perspective so that we can positively and meaningfully contribute to the sensitization campaign.