LUSAKA, Zambia – From my home in Southern Africa, waiting for covid-19 to strike feels like living in the Cold War novel, “On the Beach.” Like with the nuclear fallout cloud inching towards Australia in Nevile Shut’s disturbing book, our only option across the Continent is to hope for the best as the deadly virus stalks us all.
By Patrick Slavin, [email protected], Contributing Writer
Despite early actions by the African Union (AU) and Governments, including in Zambia which methodically began to monitor health symptoms of new arrivals at international airports in January, well ahead of the United States and the United Kingdom, and has opened up quarantine facilities throughout the country, the writing is on the wall. Africa, which had practically no cases a month ago, now has more than 7,000, with infections in almost every one of its 54 countries.
Only South Africa – currently on an army-enforced three-week lockdown with all international flights grounded — has a good score on the ventilator count with 6,000 in stock, about the same as Great Britain. The West African nation of Mali is more like it, with 20 ventilators for a population of 20 million: One per million. Malawi, in East Africa, also only has 20 ventilators for its 18 million citizens; while Liberia, hard-hit by Ebola in 2014, has no intensive care unit beds. According to the Financial Times, Ghana, with one of the Continent’s strongest economies and a respected democracy, has proportionately one-tenth the number of hospital staff as Britain.
There are many worse-case scenarios for the toll covid-19 will inflict on the Continent. Bill Gates, the Microsoft billionaire and an expert on providing healthcare in poor nations as co-founder of the highly influential Gates Foundation, forecasts 1 million people may fall, according to media reports. This is close to the same initial estimate of what Ebola was predicted to take in West Africa in 2014 – 1.4 million infections.
In what feels like another era, it was only six years ago when the Obama Administration – as described by former UN Ambassador Samantha Power in her 2019 memoir — in a “vivid example of how a country advances its values and interests at once” decisively moved to protect West Africans, the European Union, and the people of the United States from the nightmare disease which kills through multi-organ failure, shock and widespread bleeding, including from the eyes.
With many partners, including England, France, and the UN, Washington put 3,000 “boots on the ground” in West Africa and set up a Joint Force Command headquartered in Liberia to help coordinate the international relief effort; created an air bridge to fly doctors, nurses, and supplies to the region; and built Ebola Treatment Units which allowed 1,700 patients at time to receive treatment.
The world knows all too well that the stunning success of the Ebola response, which resulted in the region being declared Ebola-free within a year, will not be replicated for the coronavirus in Africa. The powerful nations which parachuted into the West African capitals of Monrovia, Freetown, and Conakry are today overwhelmed by the virus with their economies in freefall.
This doesn’t mean Africa, in the words of a surrendering army commander, is on its own. Far from it. One of the legacies of the Ebola crisis is that the AU created the Africa Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and today the organization is coordinating the Continent’s preparedness, prevention, disease intelligence, and response to covid-19. I returned to Zambia after a trip to Texas in early March and my health was monitored at the airport before I was cleared to go to Immigration. A week later, I received a phone call from the Zambian Ministry of Health inquiring if I had any covid-19 symptoms. How many New Yorkers can say that?
What’s missing is an African diplomatic titan, an impresario, who will gain access to the right government and media offices in Beijing, Washington, New York, and Brussels to raise the visibility of the crisis and explain what is about to unfold on a remarkable people and their beautiful lands. The threats facing Africa are clearly missing in today’s political discourse in the great capitals. A charismatic interlocutor is needed to change the channel. The U.S. Congress appropriated $5.4 billion for the Ebola interventions but today’s rescue can come through steps such as debt forgiveness, or a moratorium, freeing up Government arrears payments for fighting this dreadful disease.
My nominee for the AU’s first covid-19 Tsar is Liberia’s Iron Lady, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Nobel Prize for Peace winner. Note only did she successfully steer her country through the Ebola crisis as President, she is also an international monetary expert as a former Minister of Finance, high-ranking UN official, as well as a former Citibank executive. While accusations of corruption marred her Presidency, I witnessed her political skills when she cleverly gained the support of regional powerhouse Nigeria during her first successful run for President in 2005. As President, she strategically formed a close relationship with President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, when many other leaders distanced themselves following the Iraq war. Her connections to the Republican Party will serve her well in today’s Washington.
At 81, has time moved on for Sirleaf’s “Last Hurrah?” Well, that’s only a year older than the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representative, Nancy Pelosi.