Ebola cases across West Africa have dropped dramatically since last autumn. The falling figures prompted a sigh of relief from the world’s media but in West Africa, where Ebola still lurks, those tackling the disease are still holding their breath. As the leaders of the affected nations meet western aid donors in Brussels today the focus will be on how they plan to recover from a year of pain, horror and sacrifice. It is right to begin looking beyond Ebola but it would be wrong to pretend the virus no longer poses a threat. So here are five issues to watch for from the Brussels conference:
Issue One - Is there recognition that getting to zero is the first stage of the recovery?
Ebola cases have dropped significantly. In Liberia it has now been 10 days since any new case was declared. In Sierra Leone new cases have declined from a peak of over 500 cases a week to less than 100 and at 40 cases per week Guinea cases are a quarter of what they were at their peak in the autumn. Yet without reaching and sustaining zero cases in each country there can be no sound plan for long-term recovery. The porous nature of local borders and Ebola’s ability to spread mean that whilst there are any cases in West Africa there can be no case for ‘moving on’ from Ebola. If today’s situation had emerged in early autumn we would still be facing a state of emergency. The level of resources required to hold down these Ebola numbers means that this is still a crisis that has knock on effects for jobs, schools and hospitals. A country with even a small number of Ebola cases will continue to be marked by the disease. Zero cases needs to be the end goal.
Issue Two - Are international partners willing to walk the final mile?
Both the US and the UK have announced drawdowns of the armed forces deployed to support the efforts the end Ebola and NGOs are increasingly moving their resources from Ebola response to recovery. Their efforts have been critical to bending the curve of the outbreak. It is an understandable move at a time when the number of cases is falling but due care and attention needs to be given to sustaining downward pressure on the virus. Donors as well need to hold their nerve on the Ebola fight as well as looking ahead to the future.
Issue Three - Have people gotten to grips with economic recovery?
The Ebola outbreak has left a terrible toll. It has ruined thousands of livelihoods, broken-up families, and wiped millions off of the value of the economies of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Schools have been shut for almost a year, the healthcare system that deals with ‘day to day’ diseases like malaria, TB and HIV has been left in a shambles and amongst Ebola survivors the potential long-term health and psychological impacts are an unknown quantity. We will no doubt see a strong focus on the social aspects of the recovery from major aid NGOs but economic recovery will also be critical to help restore jobs. The confidence of investors will need rebuilding quickly in order to dispel the potential for doubts to linger.
Issue Four - Are the recovery plans going to deliver resilience?
The effort that has gone into tackling Ebola has brought with it new facilities and systems that if managed properly have the ability to provide a springboard for future service delivery and a safety net to ensure a crisis like Ebola cannot happen again in West Africa. The physical infrastructure of the response should not be left unused but more important are the local and national coordination mechanisms that have been integral to the response. Public servants who have applied themselves to the battle against Ebola could be well harnessed in meeting the long-standing service delivery challenges that allowed Ebola to take hold.
Issue Five - Are we letting African governments set the agenda?
AGI has already said that the governments of the affected countries need to drive the Ebola recovery. There are important lessons to be learnt from the past when it comes to building back better. Post-earthquake Haiti is such an example: if aid donors choose to focus on their own pet projects rather than focusing on the issues that matter most to the affected governments it cannot come as a surprise when they don’t achieve as much as they hoped to because of a lack of momentum or political support. The Brussels conference will be the opening act of a dialogue that will be critical in defining the near-future of those countries which were struck down by Ebola. It is important that Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea take centre stage.
The work described here was carried out by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, it is now being continued by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.