Sierra Leone and Ebola: A Disaster Waiting to Happen

[Image Credit: European Commission DG ECHO_Sierra Leone: into the Ebola epicentre (2014)]

The latest contribution from JEFCAS on Sierra Leone was a presentation by Ebola doctor returnee Professor John Wright, epidemiologist from Bradford Royal Infirmary.  He addressed an audience of hospital and university staff, students and members of the public at the university on Monday 9th February 2015, on Ebola : Experiences in Global Emergency.

He gave firsthand experience of setting up and running an Ebola clinic in the more rural areas, and put this work in a country and development context.

A packed earlier panel discussion, held in December 2014 in the university, had brought together peace studies, medical and African expertise in setting the Ebola scene, which by then was at its awful peak.

Although much has been written and said about Sierra Leone as a country over last decades, it could be said that the Ebola outbreak was a disaster waiting to happen.  Indeed, Professor Wright showed that, over the world, there had been some twenty Ebola epidemics over the last 40 years. Most had been very small but some were significant, with the latest being to a very great extent the most serious. Clearly, Sierra Leone and neighbouring countries Liberia and Guinea were unable to cope.

To recap in time.

Sierra Leone has been at or near the bottom of the Human Development Index for decades. Of course, there was the original exploitation of the area in colonial times, a point highlighted in an incongruous way by the small town named Bradford (see image).  The story goes that in the 19th century a Scottish engineer from Bradford – name unknown – was helping to build a railway (to help export materials away to the UK). The villagers could not pronounce his name (or perhaps were not able to understand his accent!) so called him ‘Mr Bradford’.  The name was eventually used for the local area.

Bradford village in Sierra Leone   Prof John Wright image

[Image credit: Bradford village in Sierra Leone, Prof John Wright image (2014)]

In the last two or three decades there have been UK aid programmes, including substantial VSO trainers on a wide variety of topics.  But the civil war 1991-2002 put paid to that.

In retrospect, the British military contribution to the ending of that war may well have helped continue the UK’s later aid linkages with that country, in small and in large ways.

The devastation caused by the war meant that both the physical infrastructure was incapacitated, as was the people infrastructure.  There were grossly insufficient numbers of both able-bodied people and also of those with health, administrative and other expertises necessary for running a country.

On top of that, during the mid-2000s, the peacetime indigenous birth rate boomed. This, together with the numbers of returning refugees from abroad, meant that the demand for everything rocketed, health requirements for the new infants in particular. But these needs could not be met.

Perhaps it’s not surprising in these circumstances that things can go very wrong, and affect the wider world as well.

However, Bradford in the UK has been helping, alongside many others. In the current Ebola situation, its leading health professor, as said above, went to assist.

A couple of other ways of helping were made too – one minor and one major example.

The minor one was an attempt to have a local authority twinning, in 2004, between the two Bradford’s in the two countries.  The primary purpose was as consciousness-raising of the Sierra Leonean town in the Bradford UK, and hopefully to raise money and expertise to assist Bradford Sierra Leone.  Although the attempt was given publicity in the UK, and a civic reception held at which Peace Studies students attended with the Bradford Lord Mayor, the idea was unfortunately not taken up.

The major one was the establishment in Freetown from 2011 of the UNESCO-affiliated African Peace University project, led by Bradford Peace Studies’ David Francis. This is helping to rebuild civic society, and much besides.

Much more will need to be done on many other fronts, of course.

Perhaps a lesson from a Peace Studies perspective is to make sure we (re)build the peace in a big way soon after war, rather than just let countries drift.  Not only building it economically but socially through trained people to do the health, education and the other elements to a society. If the £1 billion spent of the Ebola crisis had been used before to enhance the country’s infrastructure then, who knows, there might have been no outbreak at all.

—-

Peter Nias is an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. Initially an urban planner and an economic and social researcher in Telford, he then spent six years in Namibia just after the end of apartheid to help the country to defeat that legacy.  In Bradford he helped run The Peace Museum, an independent charitable trust, from 2000-2010, particularly creating exhibitions that travelled the UK and the world.  He has co-written a book about Manningham, Bradford, and a number of articles for Discover Society.   He is currently researching collateral damage and human rights.

Further reading/resources:

Audio of Professor John Wright’s lecture

Presentation on UNESCO African Peace University Initiative 

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