The 2014 Ebola Outbreak – An opportunity to Revise Partnerships

An analysis of the domestic and international responses to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa provides a critical examination of Africa’s contemporary and historical position in global politics. Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia—ground-zero of the epidemic—each represent a distinct set of interests to some of the major global leaders. Despite some initial successes and the eventual eradication of the epidemic, the numerous failures of domestic governments in addressing the outbreak highlighted common deficiencies that many African countries need to address to start changing the homogenizing narratives about the continent. Moreover, bilateral responses during and after the outbreak revealed Africa’s most important ally in its quest for economic development. If Africa ought to leave the peripheries of international politics, there needs to be less reliance on outside help and greater efforts to strengthen domestic institutions.

The 2014 ebola outbreak was not only unprecedented in its scale but also unmatched in how quickly it spread across borders. While previous cases of ebola on the continent were contained and never reached above 300 casualties, there were over eight thousand deaths and twenty-one thousand plus suspected cases recorded within a year, across not only the three initial countries but also in Nigeria, Mali, and Senegal, among others. Insofar as travel to and from the affected areas facilitated the spread of the disease to other parts of the world, a more fundamental problem that helped the outbreak spread like wildfire was institutional failure. Although Kim Yi Dionne and Adia Benton claim to deliberately de-emphasize the role of institutional failure in their commentary, the authors included several pieces in their analysis that did just the opposite.

First, early response to the ebola outbreak in the three countries were poorly supported and coordinated by domestic governments. One of the reasons for that, the authors argue, was the underestimation of the epidemic’s potential by government officials. Even though there was limited experience with the disease in this part of the continent, President Alpha Conde of Guinea “claimed that the disease was under control and publicly criticized Medecins Sans Frontieres for issuing dire warnings about the outbreak” (Benton & Dionne, 2015). Moreover, even when there was a more aggressive domestic response to the epidemic early on, institutional failure also seemed to thwart efforts to stop the outbreak. In Sierra Leone and Liberia for instance, the presidents issued threats of prosecuting anyone hiding suspected cases of ebola, which the authors attest were ineffective. Lastly, each country’s dependence on foreign organizations to take a leading role in its health system further underscored the role of institutional failure.

The three countries’ current relations with China reveal that they could have built on existing partnerships to strengthen their domestic institutions. With China’s win-win approach to Africa, the governments could have partnered with Chinese firms to develop critical health infrastructures that would have helped them at least contain the outbreak. Nevertheless, China was probably looking after its own interests when it sent aid and personnel to help with the outbreak. The African Union should be taking a leading role in these times of crisis to minimize African states’ reliance on the West, which responded inadequately during the outbreak, and promote greater cooperation amongst African states in general. Guinea’s economy worsened after the outbreak partly due to a decrease in trading with Senegal and Ivory Coast after they had closed their borders.

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