Thursday August 21 2014

Ebola: The hunter-gatherer gods must be angry with African rulers, tycoons

By Daniel K. Kalinaki

It is hard to make sense of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa. We are told the first victim was a two-year-old in Guinea followed by the child’s family members and caregivers.

Since then the disease has spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria, killing over 1,100 and infecting thousands more. Borders have been closed, flights cancelled, amid fear and panic.

This is not the first outbreak of Ebola, so named after the river in the Democratic Republic of Congo where it was first identified in 1976.

In fact, there have been almost half a dozen outbreaks in Uganda alone in the last 10 years. However, the West African outbreak is the deadliest so far, and the World Health Organisation has declared it a global emergency.

Ebola, like disease epidemics such as HIV, malaria, is a public health issue, but we must not lose sight of the politics or economics of disease.

A few days after the outbreak, African leaders jetted to a Summit with President Obama to add their voices to the message that the continent is ready to do business with the rest of the world.

The outbreak could not have come at a more opportune moment to remind us of our tragic inadequacies. Let us, for now, ignore the question of why people eat bush meat (instead of, say, T-bone steaks); from snakes to snails, people the world over have strange culinary preferences. So on that score we are just poor and unlucky to mess with the wrong animals.

Let’s focus, instead, on the public health response. Ebola has a knack of killing the nurses and doctors who lead the response to it, from Dr Stella Adedavoh in Nigeria, Dr Sheik Humarr Khan in Sierra Leone, to our own Dr Mathew Lukwiya.

So many of the first responders are locals but we clearly are incapable of dealing with these outbreaks without the assistance of foreign do-gooders like Samaritan’s Purse, Doctors Without Borders, etc.

This is majorly because we do not train enough medical workers, build enough hospitals, or stock enough medicines. While African leaders and civil servants fly abroad in their presidential jets or first and business class, the continent’s poor rely on money from Melinda and Bill Gates, PEPFAR, GAVI and so on for treatment and basic needs like clean water and mosquito nets.

Why are the experimental Ebola drugs produced by firms from Western countries that have no outbreaks of the disease? Why do we import malaria medicines from countries with no malaria? Why do African leaders continue to seek treatment abroad instead of building world-class facilities at home?

It is not that we are poor (think Sierra Leone’s iron ore and diamonds; Nigeria’s oil; and Congo’s everything). It is because our leaders are morally and intellectually bankrupt, while we the citizens are myopic cowards who can’t see beyond the narrow prism of family, clan and tribe to demand for what we collectively deserve.

Half a century after the world put a man on the moon we still live as monkey-eating hunter-gatherers who steal patients (and their beddings) from Ebola isolation wards and wash corpses with our bare hands in the name of culture because we have little knowledge and no funeral homes.

I believe Africa is better off today than it was a century ago and continues to rise.

However, we should not measure our rise by the lifestyles of our few tycoons but by the circumstances of the millions of our poor peasants.

Maybe Ebola is a reminder from the gods to the rulers and tycoons that to get their beloved foreign investment, they mustn’t ignore the hunter-gatherers.

Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi.
&Twitter: @Kalinaki