West Africa, Ebola and the lessons on education

A man receives a vaccine against Ebola from a nurse outside the Afia Himbi Health Center on July 15, 2019 in Goma. PHOTO | PAMELA TULIZO| AFP

What you need to know:

  • The death rate for Ebola was about 40 percent whereas Covid-19’s currently stands at 3 per cent in Kenya.
  • . A review of Ebola’s pandemic management provides lessons that can be used to inform education sector planning in Kenya.

The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa lasted from March 2014 to June 2016. In Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, a total of 11,310 people died from the virus while those infected were 28,610.

The death rate for Ebola was about 40 percent whereas Covid-19’s currently stands at 3 per cent in Kenya. These two viruses share some similarities — both have rapid transmission rates while prevention is through hand-washing and social distancing. Both do not have any proven vaccines or treatment.

As Ebola spread through human contact, schools were hotspots for transmission and therefore closed as a public health security measure. A review of Ebola’s pandemic management provides lessons that can be used to inform education sector planning in Kenya.

With schools closed in West Africa, it was found that few children were studying at home and the level was typically light mostly the occasional reading of old notes or listening to radio programmes.


The Emergency Radio Education Programme that provided daily sessions based on primary and secondary school curricula in core academic subjects faced several challenges: Many households did not have a radio, or could not afford batteries.

The children could not gather to listen in another home because of the restrictions on personal contact. Learners also reported that the radio teacher spoke too fast and they were unable to follow as they could not see the teacher or ask questions.

In Kenya, the radio has been mooted as a platform for virtual learning and its access is likely to be a key barrier. A recent survey on low income earners living in Nairobi shows that only 49 per cent of households with children accessed education content last month.

Census data shows that ownership of a radio set is at 58.5 per cent and 54.4 per cent of rural and urban households respectively. It should also be noted that is a daunting task to develop radio programming on the full curriculum for all students.

Therefore, it is safe to conclude that radio education programmes will keep the children engaged but will not result in substantive coverage of the curriculum.


There were gender inequalities brought about the closure of schools due to Ebola in 2014. In Sierra Leone only 15 per cent of the girls were reported to be participating in-home study as opposed to 40 per cent of the boys. Girls were occupied with domestic chores, caring for siblings and in some instances were required to work in order to contribute to the household budget.

Girls were also exposed to sexual abuse and cases of teenage pregnancies surged and this contributed to their dropping out of school.

Like in West Africa, Kenya is currently facing an increase in teenage pregnancies as girls stay at home because of Covid-19. Schools play an essential role in occupying adolescent girls during the day and keeping them in a relatively safe environment. Schools and teachers are an important source of contraception and sexual health education and supervision. To protect the girl-child, there is a need to equip adolescent girls and their parents with reproductive health competencies during the Covid-19 crisis as this will protect their welfare in the longer term.

World Bank reports indicate that about 25 per cent of the students in Liberia and 13 per cent in Sierra Leone did not return to school post-Ebola with those from poor households most affected. Many breadwinners lost their livelihoods against the back-drop of a bad economy.

The mandated quarantine period for those who had come into contact with an infected person caused in many households (especially those employed in the informal sector) to lose income. With inadequate social protection measures available (as is the situation in Kenya) many children dropped out of school.

Sadly, parents of youth in higher education were not able to raise the required tuition fees. Even in free public schools, parents were unable to meet the cost of uniforms, school materials, meals, and transport.


Children who had started earning money to support their households during the pandemic period were discouraged from returning to school. Similarly, the Covid-19 pandemic has had adverse effects on livelihoods in Kenyan and as the schools re-open, there is need to put in place incentives for children to return to school.

Like in Kenya, West Africa had to postpone national exams due to Ebola outbreak. The schools re-opened to a "condensed school year” where two academic years had accelerated syllabus whose focus was core subjects. There were questions about the efficacy of a shortened curriculum for those were promoted to the next class.

Unfortunately, the subsequent year saw the highest examination failure rates recorded due to the long out-of-school period. As we mull over the extended school break, we must ponder over the risk of poor performance in national examinations and put in place mitigation measures. Perhaps the decision to have the 2020 academic year repeated is a silver lining.

As in the case in Kenya, the classrooms in West Africa were crowded and, in some cases, accommodated over 80 students. Ebola safety and health protocols required less than 50 student per class, the restrictions pushed school-age children and youth either to private schools or out of school.

The schools were also required to install hand-washing stations (with soap), thermometers and cleaning materials such as chlorine and rubber gloves. Teachers and school staff had to be trained on health and safety measures.

Unfortunately, not all the schools were able to put in place all the required protocols and this delayed their re-opening. The ministries of Education and Health in Kenya are currently working on the safety protocols for schools re-opening. The experience in West Africa shows that this is an insurmountable task that will require a lot of planning and resources.

In conclusion, the Ebola virus in West Africa resulted in some unintended effects that we can learn from as a country as we prepare to re-open schools in January 2021.

The writer is the CEO, TIFA Research