OBBO: Ebola could kill democracy in Africa - Daily Nation

Ebola could kill democracy in Africa, cause the biggest shake-up in 50 years

Wednesday October 15 2014

A Doctors Without Borders worker wearing protective clothing relays patient details and updates behind a barrier to a colleague at the medical charity's facility in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, on August 15, 2014. Air France said it was suspending its flights to Sierra Leone from Thursday because of an Ebola outbreak that has killed at least 1,400 people in West Africa. PHOTO | AFP

Doctors Without Borders workers in protective clothing at the medical charity's facility in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, on August 15, 2014.  FILE PHOTO | AFP

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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The world is falling behind in a desperate race to stop the deadly Ebola outbreak.

Anthony Banbury, head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, warned that thousands of new infections are possible before year’s end.

The World Health Organisation says the Ebola infection rate could soon reach 10,000 a week by December if the virus is not stopped.

By that point, the worst-affected countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea will all but collapse.

By 2015, the rest of Africa could fall like dominoes. Scary stuff.

But that is probably not going to be Ebola’s lasting effect. The disease could rearrange Africa in ways it hasn’t seen since colonialism.

To begin with, Ebola is not just deadly. It is an evil genius of a virus.

And already, we have seen its ability to rewrite the formbook.

CELEBRITY SAVIOUR CULTURE

For example, one of the things it has done is to blow away the celebrity saviour culture that had grown on the continent, beginning with the mid-1980s devastating Ethiopian famine, that led to the hit single, We Are The World, sang to raise money for the humanitarian effort.

A record 45 top musicians in the world at the time joined voices for the song.

Since then, there has been no shortage of celebrities posing with fly-infested African children, refugees, IDPs, HIV patients, people whose limbs were blown off by landmines, and poor mothers at feeding centres.

Former and current Western presidents, Hollywood stars, English Premier League big names, musicians, billionaire men and their suntanned (or bleached) wives, everyone could find victims of an African crisis to be photographed with.

Then Ebola came along, and the limit of celebrity humanitariasm has been shown up.

I will give my left arm (I can afford to have it chopped since I am right-handed) to the first celebrity who will be photographed cuddling an Ebola-suffering Sierra Leonean child without a hazmat suit.

In so doing, Ebola has pointed to the source of most African problems; they are structural, and deeply embedded in political dysfunction and corruption.

NO STATE INFRASTRUCTURE

Take Liberia. The big men and women had been gorging on foreign aid while the people got little or nothing. Then Ebola comes knocking.

More frightened money comes from a world terrified the disease would spread to their shores.

Now ill-paid health workers demand a risk allowance, because they know they will be paid — the whole world is watching.

Then as the disease spreads, and more health workers die, they raise the premium for combating Ebola. They go on strike for more.

Within hours, neglected patients panic, and even some who have Ebola are reported to climb over hospital walls and fences to go and die in their villages.

There is absolutely no state infrastructure, even in terms of security, to keep them in.

And in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, Ebola quarantines proved almost useless. Why? People would bribe poorly-paid soldiers and police to let them get out of the quarantine areas.

In Ebola situations in West Africa, the health workers and security personnel have become like many an African voter.

Because politicians lie to them and give them nothing after they vote them into office, the voters have wisened up.

They wait for the campaigns and collect their payment in advance in the form of voter bribes — money, sugar, salt, chang’aa, cigarettes, and cloth.

Politicians pay because if they don’t, their rival will do so and win the election.

But if Ebola spreads to more countries and the havoc multiplies, the market will grow for leaders who step in to end Ebola using extreme means — even the “mercy killing” of sufferers or confining them behind reinforced barbed wire compounds like they were prisoners of war.

Doctors and nurses will be too afraid of the consequences to go on strike. And leaders who will, like Ghana’s Flight-Lt Jerry Rawlings in his early fiery days, tie corrupt folks on barrels and execute them by firing squad.

In short, Ebola could kill off democracy of both the African and Western variety, and usher in a new generation of puritanical authoritarian leaders who can deal with problems with an iron fist and reorganise African states and economies so that they are better able to deal with diseases like Ebola.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com). Twitter:@cobbo3

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