In recent weeks, Ebola hysteria has spread throughout the English-speaking world, fueled by media hype over concerns that the tropical disease could appear in London or New York. Cases of sick travelers who recently arrived from West Africa have been closely covered, and real estate mogul Donald Trump demanded that American doctors who caught the virus not be allowed into the U.S. for treatment. One U.S. congressman went as far as making the ridiculous claim that fear of Ebola should factor into the ongoing debate over U.S. immigration policy.
Medical professionals and experts have made clear that the epidemic will almost certainly be limited to West Africa. The Western world is at a very low risk of experiencing an Ebola outbreak. The combination of modern health systems and the limited communicability of the virus make it unlikely to spread in developed countries.
By contrast, West Africa is deep in the throes of a terrifying medical crisis that may ultimately have social and political consequences as well. The disease struck under circumstances that could not have been less favorable. Liberia and Sierra Leone, both among the poorest countries on earth, are still recovering from brutal civil wars.
As fear and confusion rise, trust between West African governments and their citizenry has been strained, and the economic impact promises to be severe. While the world attempts to contain Ebola from spreading outside the region, it must also recognize that sustaining peace and development in the region will require emergency initiatives to repair the damage being caused by the outbreak.
On Aug. 6, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared a national emergency and suspended constitutional rights for a 90-day period, citing “unrest” that represents a “clear and present danger” to the country. The move is likely intended to give the government a mandate to restrict movement to and from the country’s hardest-hit regions. Armed forces have reportedly deployed to enforce quarantines in the outbreak’s hot spots.
The outbreak has exposed a lack of trust that many Liberians have in their government. Despite numerous efforts to inform the public about Ebola’s presence during the early stages of the outbreak, ordinary citizens echoed theories that the disease was a fabrication by officials as part of a conspiracy to milk foreign donors for money.
The rumor mill has taken an ugly turn in recent days, as tales have sprung up in Monrovia that shadowy groups are poisoning communal wells. One resident told me that he witnessed a mob severely beat a suspected poisoner, whom they accused of injecting chemicals into a well to artificially increase the Ebola death toll. In an interview with a local paper, the national police spokesman denied that well poisonings were taking place and chastised community members for throwing stones at officers.
Liberia’s history of bad governance and foreign exploitation explains citizens’ reluctance to trust the intentions of government officials and international health workers. Years of extortion by police, vast and highly visible inequalities in wealth and a sense that even aid workers arrive to enrich themselves have taken their toll.
The most serious effects of the outbreak, however, are almost certainly yet to come. Earlier this week Liberia’s minister of finance downgraded national growth projections, warning of “serious consequences for the economy” from the outbreak and pleading with investors to stay and help the country fight the disease. Aid workers and skilled employees are fleeing in great numbers, and numerous airlines have canceled regular flights. Decreased spending, combined with a sustained period of damage to cross-border trade and food markets, will likely dampen recovery efforts in the immediate future.
These profound implications complicate the global effort, totaling billions of dollars, to preserve peace in the region. Given the political and social damage from civil war, the secondary effects of the outbreak could ultimately overshadow the illness itself. While Ebola is terrifying, it has thus far killed a limited number of people, and a concerted effort may yet bring the situation under control. But heightened mistrust and panic could severely strain the country’s ongoing reconciliation and development.
While Liberia has done much to rebuild since the war ended, there is a persistent notion that entrenched corruption pervades all levels of government. However true this perception may be, the Ebola crisis has clearly demonstrated that trust matters. If people do not trust their government, they will not listen to its advice even in the face of life-threatening danger.
The Liberian government will ultimately have to rebuild public trust by implementing effective measures to weed out corruption and combat the notion that it serves the interests of the elite rather than the poor. This means doing more to ensure that revenue from resource extraction reaches needy populations and that corrupt officials face justice. Civil society organizations, which have been warning about corruption for some time, must be given a seat at the policymaking table.
Close attention must be paid to the unfolding security situation. While enforcement of quarantines is an understandable measure, the presence of armed government troops and police detachments in areas that were once battlefields is likely to bring up bad memories. These forces must behave with the utmost respect and compassion for affected populations as they carry out their public health mandate.
Ultimately, it may well prove necessary to allocate international aid packages to Ebola-stricken countries in order to address revenue shortfalls and budget deficits. Aside from rebuilding the health sector, the region needs investment for local agricultural production to ensure that food markets function and that rural communities get back on their feet.
After failing to prevent conflict in Liberia and Sierra Leone during the 1990s, the international community has invested heavily in the regional peace process for over a decade. Citizens of these countries must be asking themselves, “When will our misfortune end?” In response, the world must look beyond its paranoid fears and commit to giving whatever assistance is necessary to help the region emerge healthy and on a safe path from yet another dark chapter of its history.