The Lessons Learned From the Ebola Outbreak

20/03/2015 13:59 | Updated 20 May 2015

Ebola unleashed misery, suffering and desolation on the people of the 3 disease-hit states of West Africa: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. With the worst days of the outbreak seemingly over it is time to examine the lessons left behind. These range from better knowledge of the true state and performance of health systems, the level of trust between citizens and the authorities, the quality of public service delivery and level of bureaucratic inefficiency, the vulnerability of the countries development trajectory, as well as knowledge of opportunities missed for more intensive regional collaboration. The question now is whether the people will benefit from these lessons through appropriate government action?

Building back better

Ebola has also exposed underlying flaws, missed opportunities and left behind lessons that could help us 'build back better'. There is now another chance to deploy corrective measures that could finally lift these countries from what may well have been the low-income trap of the last few decades.

While the outbreak raged, thousands of youths were trained for roles that infused discipline and a work ethic, thus hopefully laying the foundation a more productive labour force for the future. Temporary livelihoods have been generated by the Ebola industry; burial teams, contact tracers, food distributors, health care attendants, drivers for the thousands who had flown in to help, for example. Of course this is no replacement for the permanent jobs lost by the service sector due to the preventive measures of the public health emergencies such as the tailors who had few clients as people stayed home, and therefore needed fewer new dresses; bar and nightclub closures, taxi drivers who could only take limited passengers, restaurants with no customers in the evenings. The temporary jobs certainly lessoned the negative effects of these business closures at a critical period for the population. The luxury hotels illustrate the paradox. At the onset of the crises, they were generally vacant as tourists and mine workers left the country. Yet by September their rates of occupancy had largely exceeded what was normal for that time of the year -- middle of the rainy season.

At the national level, the fall in revenues, largely due to the collapse of mining income, would have stretched the budget to its limits. Yet the global resource mobilisation initiatives resulted in additional budget support to help the West African governments meet pressing obligations like their wage bill.

The greatest advantage that is yet to be fully tapped is the knowledge of opportunities missed, revelations about the discrepancy between glossy national reports of service delivery and the realities at the community level, widespread disregard for rules and regulations on which policy reforms depend for success, the shock of realising that our spectacular growth was in fact a veneer for a fragile social and economic structure, and that the levels of trust between citizens and the state were so low that stones were thrown at official workers moving in to help the sick.

The countries themselves are leading the way

Leaders are reacting. The first sign is the decision to produce a sub-regional Post-Ebola Recovery Strategy. These small contiguous countries have so much that binds them together that regional initiatives opening up possibilities for economies of scale to reduce costs, encourage competition and strengthen bargaining power, should have been the obvious route a long time ago. No longer are they waiting for the Mano River Union (MRU) Secretariat to lead the way, this time around the countries themselves are leading the way.

Another positive sign is in the assertion of national ownership by the respective Heads of State. Policies are being developed by countries, not imposed on them, and are taking into account local conditions. While in the past, 'national ownership' was really governments left in the driver's seat, not realising the vehicles were drones, with operators in remote locations, this time around the leaders are boarding different vehicles, urging development partners to accompany them. Thus they are proceeding with a more comprehensive plan for the sub-region to 'build back better', rather than a very short recovery plan favoured by some partners and that is limited to returning the countries to pre-Ebola state.

The high growth rates and other indices of good performance counted for little during the epidemic. Simultaneously the price of the key commodities collapsed, but while other mines continued to operate. Sierra Leone's went into receivership, with revelations of massive operational inefficiencies and transfer pricing. The lesson here is the vital need to revisit the management of the minerals sector and the need to emphasise diversification of the economy. Diversification is more realistic in the context of the sub-region than for any of these countries, none of which has a total GDP in excess of $10b; nor a population size of more than 12 million. In the economics, political, cultural and social fields we have had the wake up call for greater intensification of regional collaboration.

Asking for accountability

Finally, with over $3billion disbursed, the leaders are asking for accountability; not just from their own officials, but also from officials of international organisations. Accountability is only meaningful if there is an end to impunity. When the state loses millions because of corruption, or due to the misuse of discretionary authority by officials, or disregard for rules and regulations, there should be consequences.

The outbreak has thus illuminated in a macabre way what needs to be fixed in all three countries to strengthen their foundations for resilient growth. It is early days yet, but there is considerable optimism that authorities will tackle these and other governance areas where fissures have been revealed. Put differently the only choice for a bright future in this sub-region is to apply the lessons of the Ebola outbreak.