West Africa Ebola, strangely, reveals who the world's and Africa's real superpowers are

The way the international response is unfolding is partly a mirror of the geopolitical stage.

TRAGEDY has a way of clarifying things – during good times, everyone will be happy to celebrate with you, but during bad times, you will know who your true friends are…or who are the people who can afford to do something about it because they can.

For Africa this year, perhaps nothing has been as clarifying in that regard as Ebola. The key international and African players in contributing help to deal the disease, are mostly the same ones who would  have been thrusting their chests forward and making declarations or sending in troops if it had been another time type of crisis, for example, a transnational war in West Africa. In that sense, Ebola has also partly become a mirror of the geopolitical stage.

For the countries tormented by the virus, it must seem like the “big boys” took eternity to arrive at the current interventions.

The international community has been criticised for acting too slowly in their initial response to the crisis; for months it just seemed like a far away problem in a far away place.

But in recent weeks, there has been a frenzy of pledges, donations, conferences and statements on the on-going outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the three countries hardest hit by the deadly disease. So far, more than 10,000 infections have been reported, and nearly 5,000 deaths.

The cynics’ view

Cynics point to the fact that the concerted global effort to fight the disease only came when the possibility of infection in rich Western nations became a reality. In August, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak a public health emergency, but even then, the response was lethargic.

By the end of August, the  president of Doctors Without Borders – the main organisation that has been doing the real work on the ground – Dr Joannie Liu sharply criticised the global response, saying that, “States with the required capacity have a political and humanitarian responsibility to come forward and offer a desperately needed, concrete response to the disaster unfolding in front of the world’s eyes ... rather than limit their response to the potential arrival of an infected patient in their countries.”

Early this month, precisely that happened: The first case of Ebola was diagnosed in Dallas, USA, sparking a flurry of outrageous Ebola-panic in the US, but critically, forcing countries to step up global efforts to fight the disease as well.

On 18 September, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2177, which urged UN member states to provide more resources to fight the outbreak.The resolution was the first in the history of the Security Council to deal with a public health crisis, and was sponsored by 131 countries, which –  according to U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power – makes it the most broadly supported of the 2,176 Security Council resolutions since 1945.

The superpower footprints

However, within the international  response that is unfolding, there are signposts pointing everywhere to the real global – and African – superpowers are.

Starting with Africa, the initial response of many African countries was to cancel flights, withhold visitor visas from travellers coming from affected countries and shut borders. Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Chad, Seychelles, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal all either stopped flying to the affected countries or closed their borders. It was an “us vs. them” reaction that one  commentator called “shameless”.

But in September, there was a high-level meeting of African leaders to forge a continent-wide strategy to deal with the disease, setting up a mission called the African Union Ebola Outbreak in West Africa ( ASEOWA). 

So far, the African Union has raised $6 million in pledges and donations, including $1 million released from the Union’s Special Emergency Assistance Fund for Drought and Famine in, Africa; $3.5 million from Nigeria - Africa’s most populous nation with its largest economy - $1 million from Kenya and $500,000 from Ethiopia. The African Development Bank has also donated $220 million, while the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has disbursed $250,000.

When it comes to boots on the ground, so far, ASEOWA has sent a team of 21 health experts to the region, and is  expected to send at least 1,000. Ethiopia has pledged to send 200 health personnel to the effort, while Nigeria has promised to send 600.

Uganda, which has experience in successfully managing Ebola outbreaks, has already  sent 20 health experts to Sierra Leone and Liberia, while DR Congo has sent a five-man medical team, and is planning to train and deploy 1,000 more – recruitment of the first phase of 600 volunteer health professionals is already  underway.

Between Nigeria (especially the Nigeria of the Olusegun Obasanjo days), Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda (especially the latter two), you also have some of the most militarily interventionist nations on the continent.

British and American boots

Internationally, the European Commission and individual EU member countries lead the way in raising money for Ebola, bringing the total commitment to $1.3 billion by the end of last week.

The UK has committed $330 million, and has 160 health professionals ready to deploy, as well as 750 military personnel who will assist in training local healthcare workers, as well as provide infrastructure and logistical support.

The US has committed more than $350 million toward fighting the outbreak in West Africa, and according to a statement from the White House, is “prepared to devote” more than $1 billion to the Ebola effort. 

It is also started sending 3,000 military personnel to help build treatment facilities and provide logistical support. But the Pentagon has stressed that the soldiers will not be treating Ebola patients or even coming into contact with them, to “assuage the concerns” of military families, according to  this report by the Washington Post.

As for the BRICS/ Asian Tigers, they have mostly contributed supplies – Brazil and Malaysia have donated gloves, masks and medical kits, while China has put together a contingent of medical protective kits, a financial contribution of about $85 million, and is sending 29 health workers.

The return of Cuba

So far, wealthy nations have been content to just throw money at the problem, but have been reluctant to offer what’s needed most – medical professionals in the field. 

So which country is really putting itself in harm’s way? That would be Cuba, which has been lauded for its “outsized” response to the outbreak – editorials by both the  New York Times and the Washington Post have praised Cuba for “punching above its weight”, calling it the “boldest contributor” to the effort. So far, Cuba has sent 165 doctors and nurses to Sierra Leone, and 300 more to Guinea and Liberia.

Cuba’s has always played a significant role in the world, far above its little size – and it’s not just for supporting rebel movements; medicine is a major part of it too.  The island’s population is just 11.2 million – about the same as Rwanda - but it has more than 50,000 doctors and nurses posted in 66 countries around the world, including more than 4,000 in 32 African countries. 

Ebola diplomacy

Commentators say the Ebola outbreak may be the first real chance for thawing diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana, since they were severed in 1963. A New York Times editorial said it was “a shame” that the US, the chief donor in the fight against Ebola, and Cuba, the country playing the most robust role, should not be talking to each other, urging the US government to give any sick Cuban doctor access to the treatment centre the Pentagon built in Monrovia and to assist with evacuation.

During the Cold War, Africa was the battleground on which proxy wars between Cuba and the US were fought. It’s particularly poignant that the West African Ebola response could bring the two together again.

Cuba was once one of the most important external players in the liberation of southern African states like Mozambique and Angola, but it had slowly retreated from Africa with the end of the Cold War - due to economic problems at home or the demise of former socialist allies like the Soviet Union.

With firebrand and veteran revolutionary Fidel Castro stepping down in 2008 due to illness, and his brother Raúl Castro succeeding, Cuban started making baby steps toward economic liberalisation and its tourism has seen a boost from sharply increased international arrivals. 

With a modestly improved economy and favourable international climate, Ebola seems to have offered Cuba the perfect moment to return to the African party.


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