Op-ed: Lessons from Ebola in the response to COVID-19

28 April, 2020

There is nothing quite like a crisis to bring out the best — and worst — in humanity. So, when the existential crisis of a pandemic hit the world, it quickly became a veritable test for how this new normal would be managed.

For those of us in West Africa, it looked like a case of déja-vu — didn’t we just see Ebola driven out of town in 2016? You could almost smell the complacency in the air that comes with “been-there-done-that”. The Mano River Union countries that were most-affected by Ebola (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) between 2014 and 2016 could almost wear the T-shirt.

That was until the World Health Organization categorized COVID-19 as a pandemic, suggesting it was a larger health problem than the world could have imagined.

Lessons from the Ebola virus 

Initially, the low cases in Africa gave little cause for worry. This concern notwithstanding, many began reflecting on the experience with Ebola.

The Ebola crisis broke out at a time when I had started a show on radio called “Africa in Focus”, which sought to demystify, unpack and explain ECOWAS, the African Union and their institutions, and South-South cooperation.

My producers and I identified and engaged a young nurse from Ghana’s flagship and venerated hospital of Korle-Bu to offer weekly updates on the Ebola virus.

For about three months, we had a segment that shared information on the nature of the Ebola virus disease (EVD) and what citizens needed to do to keep themselves safe. In addition, we looked at Ebola’s impact on the hospitality industry, airlines, and the economic growth of the West African sub-region.

Even as West African states were unable to respond as quickly as expected, the African Union (AU) delivered through its volunteer scheme and engagement of the private sector to mobilize ordinary people to send donations by text messaging and short codes. These measures accentuated the AU as a committed and able player far better than its regional counterpart in ECOWAS. Similarly, the West African Health Organization was largely absent and unable to effectively respond to Ebola in 2014-2015.

Currently, many experts are revisiting the Ebola experience, recalling it’s devastating impact particularly in the Mano River Union countries, and remembering that while it hurt West Africa’s trade, it did not completely stop the ECOWAS region from functioning. At least 12 other ECOWAS Member States continued trading under the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme (ETLS).

Regional blocs, regional wrecks? 

The Secretary-General of the recently launched AfCFTA Secretariat, Wamkele Mene, was sworn in on 19 March at the AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Unfortunately, the current crisis prevents him from officially unveiling the Accra-based AfCFTA Secretariat to the public. Naturally, there has been much concern about the impact of COVID-19 on the operationalization of the AfCFTA and intra-African trade in general.

The secretariats of regional economic communities such as SADC, ECOWAS, and EAC and are closed with staff working virtually. This presents not only an obstacle in the promotion of regional trade, but also in the preparations for the operationalization of the AfCFTA.

In an online WhatsApp discussion convened in early April by the Federation of West African Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FEWACCI) to explore the impact of COVID-19 on the private sector and SMEs, ECOWAS’ private sector wing recommended that regional trade should continue with governments mobilizing support for SMEs and the rest of private sector to ensure it offsets the turbulence caused by the pandemic.

However, there is a glimmer of hope in the private sector associations and federations within Africa’s regions, who are stimulating conversations on the impact on trade and what needs to be quickly done to respond to the crisis.

The AU as a global player 

There is no easy conclusion to the real impact of COVID-19 on intra-African trade and, by extension, the AfCFTA. If we are to go by the precedent of Ebola, then there is an inexorable link to peace and security.

By declaring COVID-19 an existential threat to the peace and security of the global comity of nations (as exemplified by UN Security Council Resolution 2177 (2014) that declared Ebola a threat to international peace and security),  certain options would be left open, including free and unfettered access and the lifting of travel bans that might hamper efforts against COVID-19.

China, a permanent member at the Security Council, remains hesitant to support a call to declare COVID-19 a threat. This may only deepen suspicions of its intentions, and further deepen the malaise that has been caused by the nefarious impact of COVID-19 on intra-African trade.

Before COVID-19, the AfCFTA represented a renewed call by Africans to collectively shape the future of the continent. While the crisis is inarguably devastating, the manner in which the AU’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has steered the African narrative on COVID-19 by consistently informing the world on how Africa is monitoring the pandemic has proved that the AU has come of age as a global player.

The resilience that Ebola exposed, in my view, will be the same kind that will help revive continental dynamics and conversations around the operationalization of the African Continental Free Trade Area.

Emmanuel is an ECOWAS & AU Policy Analyst and Deputy Executive Director of the AfCFTA Policy Network-Ghana & Diaspora. He is founder of “Africa in Focus”, which includes East Africa Rising & ECOWAS Business News. 

Twitter: @ekbensah