One day, in early March this year, a Guinean man, had a craving for meat. He packed his weapons and went into the forest where he was lucky enough to make an easy kill.
He came back home, his wife cooked dinner for him and because he was impatient, he ate the meat before it was fully cooked. Unknown to him the meat was infected with the Zaire ebolavirus and the unknown man became patient zero.
A little over five months later and we have had a suspected 1603 cases (as of 1 August) and 887 deaths and the virus has spread over four countries in West Africa. How can this happen in the modern day and age? Complacency and failure by the involved governments to utilise technologies at their disposal contributed significantly the the rapid spread of this virus.
The result has been the largest Ebola outbreak in history. The governments and health officials of the affected countries did not respond appropriately to the scourge.
For example in the case of Nigeria, a man travelling from the affected region, even showed the symptoms during the flight to Nigeria, was allowed to have contact with several people bringing the outbreak to Nigeria even though any reasonable measures should have included quarantine.
With news of the outbreak every Tom and Harry who got a cough swamped hospitals claiming to have the virus even though they had never had contact with anyone with the virus.
So in addition to the actual Ebola cases there is panic and distrust of the government in not only Nigeria but in the other countries where armies have been deployed. Meanwhile the social media is churning at full speed powering the rumour mill.
Whilst governments are busy battling the virus they have neglected the need to communicate what they are doing and alarmists have risen to fill the void. Church leaders and televangelists are also ridding this wave with claims that they can cure the virus ringing out of every avenue that they can find including the internet.
One Facebook post here by a pastor calling himself Ituah Ighodalo claims that people have been cured in the past by a Pastor John G Lake. A refutal by the Washington Post shows that the said Pastor Lake was already dead when the outbreak mentioned in the testimony took place. How and why it happened?
- Complacency. The “it will never happen to us” attitude.
- Failure to disseminate information about the outbreak
- Failure to assure those in affected areas resulting in panic and riots
- No proper communication between governments and travel departments of different countries resulting in infected people spreading the virus to other countries.
What the Zimbabwean government should do.
- The Ebola virus just like its computer counterparts is pernicious. We should do away with the presumption that we are safe owing to our geographical distance and start being proactive and remember the H1N1 outbreak of 2009 which found its way here.
- The country must take advantage of its 106% mobile penetration rate to communicate with its citizens about this virus and outbreak. Things like symptoms must be clearly communicated to the populace so that suspected outbreaks can be quickly identified and false alarms avoided allowing medical officials to deal with genuine cases only. Although there is no cure the chances of survival increase significantly when the treatment and medical caring starts early.
- Telecom operators like Econet, Telecel and Netone must send SMS blasts to their subscribers telling them about the virus and allaying people’s fears. For example how the virus is spread, telling people to avoid unnecessary handshaking with people showing Ebola like symptoms, poor sanitation and not washing your hands exacerbates the spread of the virus as well as the fact that the virus is survivable. Messages like this would be helpful.
- It is shocking that emergency numbers don’t seem to be working. Dialing 112/999/911 results in a network error. We are all used to scenes in movies when the hero dials 911 and the phone is answered promptly, here in Zimbabwe you would be better advised to call the hospital directly which means you need to know the number in advance, which might not always be possible. The network operators and the ministries of health and home affairs need to do something about this.
- A clear communication that this is not some spiritual curse that is caused by spirits and a directive to all religious and traditional organisations to make sure that all patients are admitted to hospitals instead
- Create a database of all church leaders, churches, prophets and their doctrines including intelligence gathering on their activities and doctrines. This is the post-Gumbura world for Christ’s sake. Yet some “prophets” have continued to make some absurd claims bordering on the illegal with little consequence.
- African health ministries must take advantage of technologies such as the internet to create a unified response to this pandemic.
- Vigilance from the relevant fields to monitor such things as travelers coming from the affected regions. Again Africa would benefit immensely from a unified travel database and uniform visa requirements would benefit other sectors such as tourism as well.
I fear the Ebola virus will catch us unawares and ill-prepared in this country. Maybe I am just overreacting. In either case an official communication from our government on the matter would greatly be appreciated. If they made it on ZBC It’s likely a lot of people missed it: we do Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp now.
Image Credit: BET