Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) first brought the world’s attention to the latest and most deadly outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in March 2014, the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have all been devastated by the disease.
At the time of publication, the death toll stands at 5444 out of a reported 15319 cases, but many more have gone undetected.
The scale of this on-going tragedy was avoidable. The response of the international community could have been more swift and decisive.
And as a previous Equal Times piece states, the pre-existing critical shortage of healthcare workers in these countries has made a crisis a catastrophe.
Still it is these workers – nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, cleaners – as well as burial teams, that have been on the frontline in the fight against the disease.
They ferry the sick, care for them, administer their medicines and bury the dead.
Far too often, they too fall victim to Ebola – so far, 325 healthcare workers have died in the fight against EVD and many more have been infected.
Like the powerful video message by Rosa Pavanelli of Public Services International shows, the global union movement salutes the bravery of these workers, as well as their sense of humanity, duty and sacrifice.
The social and economic cost of this pandemic on working families is profound.
In a telephone conversation with Max Conteh of the Sierra Leone Labour Congress (SLLC) he told me that women and children continue to be very badly affected.
“Lots of children are being orphaned and don’t have anyone to look after them. Most women are engaged informally as farmers, petty traders and daily wage earners, so the lock-down measures adopted to prevent the further spread of EVD had a big impact on them financially.”
In Liberia, a recent report revealed that almost half of the country’s workforce has been unable to make a living because of Ebola.
Even before Ebola, most Liberians struggled to buy in the basic necessities. Now, as food prices continue to rise, work becomes scarcer and inflation has risen by 40 per cent, the situation is intolerable.
Governments, NGOs, citizens, musicians and even sports stars from all over the world continue to cry out for help to stop this pandemic and to help Liberians, Sierra Leoneans and Guineans return to their normal lives.
But so far the response has been tepid.
Although some nations like Cuba have sent hundreds of doctors to help fight Ebola, other nations have sent troops – or nothing at all.
And while the international community pledged hundreds of millions in terms of Ebola funding, very little of the money has actually arrived on the ground.
The Africa regional office of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa) recently launched an appeal for workers and communities ravaged by the pandemic.
We acknowledge the fact that this crisis “showcases the deep cracks in the African public health system….The access to health care, which is supposed to be a basic human right, has deteriorated in many African countries.”
The statement continues: “Significant numbers of medical personnel [have] abandoned the public health sector in search of greener pastures either in the private health care sector or outside Africa.
“The very high Ebola fatality rates in West Africa have been attributed in part to the lack of adequate intensive care facilities and personnel to administer healthcare. It is alarming that many patients are even afraid to seek health services from the institutions that are supposed to save their lives”.
Poor healthcare systems are not innate to Africa. Most African economies are yet to recover from the devastating effects of the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s.
Public services delivery – particularly public health – continues to suffer from incessant attacks by international financial institutions calling for privatisation and liberalisation in order for services to be “better managed”.
Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone rank amongst the ten poorest countries in the world, according to the 2014 United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report.
Thus, access, availability and affordability of healthcare are serious issues for most people in these countries. The Ebola crisis isn’t the cause, but the symptom.
Maybe if the people of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone had a public health delivery system akin to the UK’s National Health Scheme, their citizens would have fared better.
Clearly, this is a wake-up call for the affected countries, as well as other developing countries to undertake audits of their public service delivery capacities and strategies.
But the immediate challenge is for solidarity and support in Ebola-hit West Africa.
The ITUC-Africa appeal will support trade unions in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea on everything from the purchase of medical equipment and supplies to providing financial support to members who are dire-straits.
Our comrades continue to battle this deadly infection but we are all affected – so let’s act now!