In Africa's biological war, avoid friendly fire


Dr Cyril Broderick, former professor of Plant Pathology at the University of Liberia’s College of Agriculture and Forestry, claimed in a recent article in the Daily Observer based in Monrovia, Liberia, that the United States (US) was responsible for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) had been funding Ebola trials on humans shortly before the outbreak earlier this year, injecting healthy adults with the virus in what Broderick called a ‘viral haemorrhagic fever bioterrorism research laboratory in Sierra Leone.’

In other words, it was trying to develop Ebola as a biological weapon using Africans as guinea pigs. Broderick’s accusation – recalling similar conspiracy theories about the origins of HIV – was perhaps a good caricature of the continent’s response to the Ebola crisis.

Like all good caricatures, it expresses an essence of truth, though not necessarily the truth that the author of the accusation would have us believe. Broderick cited Tekmira, a Canadian pharmaceutical company, as the agent conducting this alleged Ebola bioterrorism research. It turns out that Tekmira has been conducting accelerated research to try to develop a cure for the deadly disease.

Many Americans often tar all of Africa with the same gloomy brush

But Broderick’s accusation is in many ways just an extreme form of a typical continental reaction to outside intervention; the more you try to help, the more your motives will be suspected. And, if we can find someone else on whom to pin the blame, we will.

That the US has taken the world lead among countries in fighting this Ebola epidemic cannot really be doubted; it has spent over US$300 million so far and pledged US$1 billion, with the UK probably second, followed by Germany, France and then China.

The US is also deploying between 3 000 and 4 000 troops to West Africa to fight Ebola. The African response has been notably slower by comparison. In a recent interview published by the Institute for Security Studies’ Peace and Security Council Report online, Alain Aimé Nyamitwe, Burundi’s permanent representative to the African Union (AU) Commission, said that the Ebola epidemic was shaming Africa.

‘Africa is yet to be seen to take action. Where are we? We have made a decision to deploy a humanitarian mission. How many countries responded to the call?’ Nyamitwe said. The AU Commission Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, only visited the Ebola-struck West African region in October, seven months after the outbreak began.

The AU was also late in dispatching a humanitarian mission – a team of 28 health workers – to West Africa. The lateness was explained by teething problems: this was the first such mission deployed under Article 6 of the AU Charter, and its efforts to deploy were apparently hampered by anti-Ebola travel restrictions imposed by some AU member states, which the AU opposed.

Dlamini-Zuma later acknowledged that Africa’s response had been too slow – but so had the world’s, implying ‘we are all equally guilty.’ True enough. But did Africa not have a greater responsibility to respond to the crisis in its own backyard? A clue to why it did not do so adequately could perhaps be found in early August, during a panel discussion at the US-Africa summit in Washington.

The more you try to help, the more your motives will be suspected

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete was asked by veteran American journalist Charlie Rose what Africa was doing about the Ebola outbreak, then some four months old. Kikwete’s response was instructive. ‘Ebola is in West Africa,’ he noted, acidly. ‘Tanzania is in East Africa.’ He went on to castigate those who treat Africa as though the whole continent is ridden with Ebola, and made the point that Ebola is a universal, not an African disease.

Kikwete’s retort – which was widely applauded by other African leaders present – suggested that he was hearing the ‘background music’ as a Nordic politician once aptly put it, rather than Rose’s question.

Rose’s question did not imply that Tanzania, East Africa and the continent as a whole were also ridden with Ebola. He merely asked what Africa as a whole was doing to combat Ebola in West Africa – a pertinent question, surely, in the light of Africa’s claim to feel solidarity with fellow Africans.

On the same panel as Kikwete, President Jacob Zuma insisted that Africa had the Ebola epidemic under control. That remark doesn’t look so smart either in retrospect, with the death toll having risen from about 750 then to above 5 000 this week, according to the World Health Organisation, with over 14 000 infected.

Of course it is true that many Americans, and no doubt much of the rest of the world, often do tar all of Africa with the same gloomy brush. As Tony Leon related in a column in Business Day this week, Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, recently decided to reject applications for admission from Nigerian students because of fears of Ebola contamination. While in Guangzhou, China, a Nigerian businessman who had been trading in China for 40 years was likewise barred from the huge Canton trade fair.

These reactions were both inhumane and ignorant, as Nigeria has had just eight deaths and is managing the epidemic relatively well. Jumping on such incidents, pious commentators in this country and elsewhere appear to agree with the likes of Kikwete (and Broderick?) that the real villains in the epidemic have been the West and particularly the US.

They have berated the American public for being selfishly obsessed about their own handful of Ebola victims – just one of whom has died so far – and mostly indifferent to the vastly greater numbers of victims in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and elsewhere in West Africa.

Did Africa not have a greater responsibility to respond to the crisis in its own backyard?

But is this really so surprising? The average citizen of any country is parochial, when the chips are down, caring more about his own than about others. What matters, ultimately, is what the US as a government, as a country, is doing about Ebola. And that is quite a lot.

Apart from its positive measures, mentioned above, the Obama administration’s opposition to stricter quarantine measures demanded by Republicans probably cost the Democrats votes in this month’s mid-term elections. And the US seems ready to do more.

South Africa has done quite a lot by continental standards, notably by sending a mobile laboratory to Sierra Leone, to diagnose those with Ebola. It has also so far set aside R32,5 million to fight Ebola and is trying to raise R250 million more from local business.

It would seem that it is waiting for these donations to finance a 40-bed field hospital, which it wants to airlift into West Africa, probably Sierra Leone, to help isolate and treat Ebola sufferers. That’s a vitally needed function to prevent proliferation, and Sierra Leone is doing worse than other affected countries in containing Ebola precisely because it lacks such capacity.

But, apart from the money, South Africa doesn’t have the big cargo aircraft to deliver this hospital to West Africa. Have we asked the Americans? Or are we proudly insisting on African solutions for African problems, as Zuma implied at the US-Africa summit? While West Africans continue to die?

When disaster – whether natural or manmade – strikes again, as it surely will, shall Africa go on the offensive, rather than the defensive, mobilising what resources it has and then appealing unashamedly to the world for those it does not have? Or will it dither, while blaming others? In biological warfare, as in any warfare, it is important to distinguish your enemy from your friend. To avoid friendly fire. The enemy is Ebola.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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