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Opinions of Thursday, 5 March 2020

Columnist: Amb. Alhaji Abdul-Rahman Harruna Attah, MOV

Covid-19, No lessons from Ebola?

HIV/AIDS, SARS, Corona Virus (Covid-19) are modern day scourges of the 20th and 21st centuries. Going back in history, other scourges, like the bubonic plague that scythed through and devastated vast populations on the Asian and European continents in the mid-1300s are remembered with revulsion, horror and incredulity in relation to the number of deaths involved – anything from 50 million to over a hundred million.

There have been many others – according to Wikipedia, some nine major ones during the last 300 years, all exacting heavy tolls.

Each time they have occurred, even in modern times, the world is caught unprepared only later to rally and fight back. Modern medical science has eradicated some of them, some have persisted and new ones have cropped up. From localised epidemics, if not checked and eliminated they spread into pandemics. Whether epidemic or pandemic, they all require international collaboration to combat. Left unchecked, they cause havoc before eventually dying out naturally. The history of pandemics makes grim reading. They come in different forms and some, like the influenza virus may even mutate making eradication more difficult.

The Ebola virus, one of the most virulent of scourges struck three member countries of the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) in the early months of 2014. Already on their knees as a result of stinging poverty brought on by struggling economies, they were sent much lower down the poverty line when the Ebola, with apocalyptic scythe in hand, came calling.

Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia had been infected around March 2014, some three months. At first it was regarded as one of those African nightmares that would hog the headlines for a few weeks and be replaced by another affliction. Ghana had Buruli ulcer some years ago in one of her regions – a flesh eating microbe which if not treated would eat the flesh to the bone even as the victim was still alive and could lead to death, but the victim is usually left terribly disabled. A coordinated effort between Ghana and the international medical community tackled it and brought it under control.

Ebola, by the end of 2014, was a global emergency and its status as a medical terror had become unassailable. Ghana was however exhibiting all the symptoms of a well-run country, with economy showing signs of good health, socially stable, security under control infrastructure improving. It was perhaps with all these positive signs in mind that Ghana’s President at the time, John Dramani Mahama received a call from then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appealing for help to use Ghana as a hub to coordinate the response. President Mahama wasted no time in putting his country at the disposal of the international community, leading to the formation of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response – UNMEER. Addressing the UN in 2015, he said, “Ebola is a problem that belongs to the world because it is a disease that knows no boundaries,”

2014 ended and 2015 began with Ebola as the single most intractable public health scourge confronting us all in the sub-region and beyond. The search for a cure, a vaccine, or anything to get a handle on the virus had become pre-eminent in pharmaceutical labs all over the world with the World Health Organization (WHO) leading the charge. Sub-regional governments had justifiably become paranoid leading to border closures.

The dying and dead were piling up in the thousands as the international community rallied. In his remarkable show of courageous leadership, President Mahama agreeing for Ghana to become the coordinating hub of Ebola activities provided the kind of fast, efficient and targeted international response required to avert an even bigger disaster. Paradoxically, this commendable act of international humanitarianism and volunteerism came under attack from within, with some people giving a domestic partisan angle to it by complaining that the move would put Ghana at risk.

Food aid, medical aid, public health experts, poured into Ghana with one determined objective: To stop Ebola from spreading. The media reflected those anxious days with the relentless flow of Ebola stories. Typical headlines on Ebola taken from Ghana News Agency (GNA) files of January 2015 captured Ghana’s and the world’s moods:

*Prez calls for effective coordination against Ebola. *Traditional healers sensitized on deadly Ebola fever.

*Australia supports Ghana's Ebola preparedness.

*EU pledges more support to Ebola affected countries.

*Health Minister entreats nations to support affected countries to control Ebola.

*Togolese President in Accra for Ebola meeting.

Some countries even entertained the idea of banning flights in and out of the entire sub-region and we were hard-pressed explaining that only 3 of the 13-member sub-region were infected. Because of Ghana’s leadership, other countries, notably the US, stepped up their humanitarian efforts. US President Barack Obama tried to allay fears by telling his countrymen and women to banish the fear and rely on the science. He volunteered US troops to give a helping hand. International airports set up health desks to screen passengers arriving from the sub-region, infected or not.

The World Health Organization (WHO), intensified its information management and gave the assurance that a vaccine or cure was being worked on as at the time, two potential candidates were undergoing evaluation.

As Ebola came under control, Ghana’s role was recognized by the international community as having been crucial in containing the outbreak and President Mahama’s courageous leadership added to his increasing influence as a major player on the world leadership scene. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon appointed him co-chair with the Norwegian Prime Minister for Advocacy Group of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Ebola out, Corona in, and the world is holding its breath and waiting for decisive leadership. Corona virus was initially taken as something of a Chinese problem and the country was lampooned in the social media as having caused it through all manner of strange foods they consumed as delicacies. The World Health Organization (WHO) equally started off with conflicting attitudes. The industrial countries were slow in reacting and even as the seriousness of the pandemic has become evident, they are not giving confidence-raising initiatives.

For example, US Vice President Mike Pence’s appointment to head the US efforts has already come under severe criticism because of what some of the critics have described as his appalling public health record when he was Governor of Indiana and some of his utterances concerning public health issues. Matters have not been helped by guidelines that more or less gag the US scientific and medical communities.

Cases have been recorded in Africa, even as close to home as Nigeria, meaning Ghana can only hope and pray. The many hospitals and health centres started by the Mahama Administration and abandoned to rot by the Akufo-Addo Administration are the kinds of infrastructure that would be required at the forefront of the interventions, should any unfortunate health calamity like corona strike.

Korle Bu and Komfo Anokye would not be able to do it alone, nor indeed can the few ambulances placed here and there. What would be required would be dedicated health facilities with the requisite personnel, equipment and drugs as envisaged and started by President Mahama spread all over the country but for now, we are living on the wings of hope and prayer…

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