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Monday, September 15, 2014

Ebola virus exposes Africa’s soft underbelly

The spread of the Ebola virus has been fast and deadly. The Ebola outbreak is the largest in history and the first in West Africa. As of September 6, 2014, World Health Organization (WHO) said it had recorded about 4,300 cases in five West African countries and the death toll was estimated at about 2,300.
But new figures from Liberia, the country worst hit by the Ebola crisis, are yet to be released. According to WHO, we should expect thousands of new cases in the next three weeks. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says the crisis could worsen as the public health system staggers with inadequate supplies, a population gripped in deathly fear and limited outside support. As always, in emergencies such as this, global response if often slow and limited in scale. 
While the devastation wrought by Ebola is both saddening and depressing it is hardly surprising. Ebola has hit some of the most impoverished countries and has exposed well-known vulnerabilities in Africa’s public health infrastructure. With vision and dedication, Liberia has made steady progress in delivering basic health care to its citizens since the end of the civil war in 2003. But vision and dedication does not cut it. Liberia’s health care system is beset with crippling capacity problems; a chronic shortage health care professionals, lack of equipment and poor supply of essential medicines.
Lack of capacity to deliver health critical services are not limited to Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria or Sierra Leone. These are critical concerns as Africa continues to grapple with a multitude of health challenges, not least of which is the unyielding burden of infectious diseases, which account for neatly 70 percent of deaths on the continent. But Africa’s fragile health systems must confront a new challenge. WHO projects that over the next 10 years the continent will register the largest increase in mortality from Non-communicable diseases (NCDs); cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory diseases.
The burden of chronic illness in Africa is projected to increase by 27 percent, killing 28 million people over the next 10 years. Cancer rates in Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to rise by 85 percent by 2030. Similarly, it is estimated that 41.5 million African will be living with diabetes by 2035. In addition to the staggering burden of infectious diseases, the cost of treating NCDs, direct and indirect economic burden of chronic illness will further hinder progress toward attaining the broader goals of sustainable development.
Africa’s shambolic healthcare infrastructure must be viewed against the Africa rising narrative. Africa is ascending economically. Africa is seen an emerging market by many in the global business community. Moreover, Africa’s youthfulness and its bonanza of its mineral resources, including hydrocarbons make it truly the continent of the future. However, Africa rising narrative reminds me of the myth of Icarus and Daedalus.
Daedalus constructed wings, from feathers and wax, for himself and his son Icarus so they could escape from the Labyrinth in Crete.  Before they set off, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high lest the sun melt the wax. Overcome by the excitement of flying, Icarus ignored his father’s warning, flew to close to sun, his wings melted and he crushed into the sea.
Here is why the Icarus and Daedalus myth is relevant to Africa. African leaders and the international business community are overwhelmed by the Africa rising narrative, which is purely based on headline GDP and the surge in commodity trade. To realize its potential fully in the long run, Africans needs forge strategic partnerships to mobilize public and private investments to tackle some of the continent’s most enduring challenges.

What Africa needs, if it is, to claim to the 21st century is a solid foundation of human capacity. Africa must lay the foundation upon which to build world-class human capital for the future by investing significant budget and planning resources in education and skill building for the youth, healthcare, affordable housing for a burgeoning urban population, water and sanitation services for its vast rural population, food and nutrition security for the hundreds of millions who are hungry and malnourished.

I have always argued that Africa’s neglected priority challenges will not resolve inevitably, and in honor of Africa’s meteoric GDP growth. The Ebola emergency has shone a bright light on Africa’s underlying problem, governance incapacity, which is manifested in weak and ineffective public institutions. We have work do to. 

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