UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, the United Nations must learn lessons from the Ebola crisis. “We must learn the lessons of Ebola, which go well beyond strengthening public health systems," Ban told reporters at UN headquarters Monday.
What kind of lessons could the Secretary General be referring to?
Says Koffi Kouakou, Senior Lecturer and Africa Analyst at WITS University in Johannesburg:
Very clearly, there are many layers of impact. But what I see, it has got three elements to it. I look at the geopolitical consequences, the economic or geo-economic consequences and the social impacts.
Most importantly, if we start with the geopolitical impact, let’s start with the regional response to this. The Africans for some reason haven’t been as quick, as most of the time they have been, because of the nature of the politics among themselves. You’ve got 54 African countries. There are all sorts of skirmishes and parities among themselves. And for some strange reason it seems like somebody else from the outside has always to remind the Africans that, you know, something wrong is going on in your neighborhood, or sometimes the Africans themselves do not have the strength to tell their own stories and to share with the world the kind of work they are doing to deal with their problems quickly.
And we see that in the strategy there are four basic reactions and the combination of the four. Those behaviors are being proactive, passive and then reactive, or the combination of the four, which makes it six. For the most part, there is an impression that Africans are very reactive to what happens to their continent and there is a lot of evidence for that. But what is also important is that it is showing that in terms of governance, our health system’s governance and security haven’t responded very fast enough to the kind of health security crisis we are facing, including the Ebola or the HIV virus and so forth.
When I say “we”, I'm talking of the African leaders, and myself included. Living on the continent we need to take some responsibilities. In fact, we’ve been working on this activity of governance called anticipatory governance. We shouldn’t be waiting for the crises to break out, we should in fact attempt to preempt them, to do something before they even happen, and in fact that they don’t happen at all. So, we need to take that responsibility.
The other one on the geopolitical side of it is that the Africans still haven’t managed to really fend off the international, mainly, if you want, Western-dominated interventions in their affairs. And that is going to take time for the Africans to be able to sort of defend against this, because every time something happens, the Western nations are usually or seemingly the first to jump in, to provide aid, interventions or some kind of band aid with Geldof and Bono singing up and down. So, this is something that Africans haven’t been able to really fend off. Although, I have to say that some of it is not really as bad, as we might think. Some people have a very genuine intention to help. Unfortunately, right beneath that genuine ability to help, there are other agendas that are creeping up and then taking over in the long run. So, these are the geopolitical consequences that I see.
The other one is geo-economic or the economic consequences of this crisis. It is going to cost a lot of money and also a great deal of governance and leadership to continuously anticipate these crises, but most importantly, as they happen, to deal with them very quickly, having health systems that work, that help the Africans to defend themselves from the kind of diseases or the crises that we are still going to face. And it is not yet done, because there may be other crises that will break up. They don’t have to be only health, they could be other social issues. It could be a war, it could be terrorism, we don’t know yet. So, this is the consequence to take into account.
The third layer, which is the social consequence or impact, is the fact that suddenly the Africans, who were used to socially coming together very quickly, hugging each other are now afraid of hugging somebody else. And then, there is this intolerance or there is a stigma, saying that – all those three countries (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and perhaps Mali where there were a few cases, and then of course Senegal) are now going to be pariahs of people around the world or of Africa looking at them. We've seen right across the continent now some kind of intolerance of the African governments and also of the international governments, passing the laws about forbidding people from these countries to go to visit them.
So, socially, it creates some kind of fragmentation. There is not much cohesion anymore, because of the fear factor – that if you met with the people coming from these countries, you’ll have the Ebola virus or you’ll be killed. So, that fear is really important and that fear drives the social consequences, both regionally and then internationally.
These are some of the things that I could see. In fact, part of the fear is now bringing a lot of the Africans together. The African Union has put a fund together. The African Union has been really driving some kind of communication to sensitize and generate a campaign of solidarity to really deal with that kind of fear. So, in short, these are the three layers that I would see as an answer to your question.
You said that Africans have not yet learnt how to fend off the international interference. And you’ve mentioned that certain international forces do have some kind of their own agenda in these kinds of situations. What kind of agenda are we talking about and how has it been revealed in this particular case?
Koffi Kouakou: There is one simple example, which hasn’t been really analyzed a lot by many people – this sort of fear factor, and then the idea that the Ebola outbreak crisis has to be dealt with. There are many ways to turn that into the first one. The World Health Organization has declared the Ebola outbreak as the global health crisis, an emergency, as it is being put out, which means that it suddenly becomes a very important tool and platform for some other nations to use it, to move into these countries.
One simple example is that of the US. And the US has cleverly done so and justifiably so, because the Ebola virus and the crisis has also become a security issue. So, the US is now using that as a form of new militarization of an internal security matter for the soft intervention in Liberia, and then moving in some troops. And sort of moving mainly medical doctors and people who deal with it, the US has done what I call a double head intervention, a soft intervention by, first, making it a military case. So, there is now a case for the Ebola virus as a military issue. And that dimension has been transformed into sending more than 4000 troops rapidly into Liberia very softly. And that hasn’t been really discussed at all. And of course, it is not only the US that is doing that, but also China. China has moved in some troops as well, but much less than the US, also with the doctors. So, that case is very powerful. And it is not just China and the US also, but the EU as well.
So, mainly, looking at the security agenda, I see the Ebola virus as a security threat. So, dealing with that threat becomes a military priority. Thus, sending military troops in that region is really an important military strategic element. But, at the same time, that military strategic interest links with what many have now called the growing interest in the Gulf of Guinea, which is rich in the resources and oil for the US to tap into and to use it as an opportunity to defend its potential interests in the coming future.
Have they ever tried to formally explain the bringing in of the troops, not only of doctors and medical personnel? Did they give any reason to that, why the troops?
Koffi Kouakou: The only and the most powerful way to explain that is to say – we need to deal with that security threat, because the Ebola virus represents a global health emergency, as the WHO has put it out, like the SARS virus in Asia. That is a serious security threat. And any security threat component has to have a military response to it, at least for the US. And we know, for the most part, that everything has got to be militarized. And of course, the military industrial complex can’t wait to find the arguments to really use most of its tools. And this is one of them.
And it is the powerful argument, it is so powerful that even President Obama many times during this year in some major speeches has said that this is the military issue, it is a defense and security issue and there are no better people than the military to deal with it. And that is the only, but the most powerful argument that almost sort of comes to help at large. But when I say “help”, it is sort of to find a solution for the African countries that are a little bit slow at responding. This is what I called a military offer to the crisis of the Ebola virus that the Liberian Government couldn’t refuse.
And they’ve accepted that without noticing that now they are going to have military troops that are there and they will take another 10 to 15, if not 20 years to leave. In fact, as the military stays there, so do they add all sorts of other priorities onto that military in that Ebola crisis fighting. There will be another thing – okay, we need to build you an airport, we need to build your health system, we need to build your education system, we need to build your transport system and infrastructure. And that’s how it escalates. And I can bet on my analysis that the US military will be in Liberia for, probably, 15 to 30 years to come.
One of the Internet gossips was that Americans have brought in a large amount of Ebola vaccine to Africa, prior to the outbreak. Is it a mere speculation or do you think that, perhaps, that could have any real substance to it? Though it does scent of a conspiracy theory.
Koffi Kouakou: Well, you know, today when we know that in the old days, when the CIA came out with the notion of a conspiracy theory, it’s really grounded it to denote anything that seems really far-fetched or sound like far-fetched, that it is really difficult for people to believe. And the best propaganda is to make sure that things are really far-fetched. But thee point to this is that we don’t really know.
Even those who are giving the genesis of the outbreak in the West Africa, they are still puzzled by the fact that suddenly a virus we’ve known about in the Central Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo will appear in the West Africa, and then with the very virulent strength spread very quickly from Guinea all the way to Sierra Leone, and killing close to 7000 people. And so far there is no clear statistics, no exact statistics on the number of deaths. There are speculations that there are twice or three times more people dead, because nobody has gone from door to door in all those villages, to find out exactly the number of people dead. And so, we don’t know that much.
However, those speculations are now having some attraction. People are very uncomfortable with the fact that it took such a virulent virus for the US and the EU to start helping these countries, to whom the World Bank and the IMF…I mean, latterly, I'm sure you’ve heard about this, and they are not denying that they’ve forced these countries to do some kind of economic structural adjustment – to cut their health budget. And then, with the war that we’ve seen in the past 15 years in the West Africa (in Sierra Leone, in Liberia), now the war has sort of gone down with the destruction of the health infrastructures. There is really no quick response or a better response to these kinds of virus outbreaks. So, who knows, we can’t really tell. But the speculations are very strong and the people are very suspicious.
Talking about conspiracy theories, anybody who comes up with anything that is a little bit “far-fetched”, is really branded into sort of a lunatic. But from time to time some evidence shows that the things are very suspicious, that these kinds of viruses all break out very easily. You have the medical evidence that shows that these places are very fertile for that, and, at the same time, we are really trying to question how did this thing really go so fast and so quickly in the West Africa.
Which, as far as I understand, has never occurred before, right? I mean, there were outbreaks, but not of this scale.
Koffi Kouakou: Not of that scale. We’ve never seen such a scale before. And this is what is really concerning our health specialists, our security strategists, government strategists who are now very worried about that kind of an outbreak and its so quick spread.
So, just to sum it up, has the worldwide campaign, the media campaign really helped to minimize the effects of the outbreak or rather not? And the second question: has there been more words or the real work about this whole international effort?
Koffi Kouakou: First, we get a sense of what I call the dismal and lethargic governance responses from both the African leaders and the international community. When the outbreak came out, it took them months and months to realize that this was a very serious outbreak. But, at the same time, the role of the media…and we know that the media is a strategic weapon or a tool for setting up the agenda, for directing the focus, prioritizing what people think is important to them. So, the most powerful countries in the world are using their own media or media by proxy to determine what should be a priority and what is not a priority.
But, at the same time, the strength of the media is that it is also an instrument that can really magnetize very small things and make them so big, but also divert the attention away from what really matters. And the case of the Ebola virus in the West Africa has been exactly that. I mean, during the outbreak the BBC, for example, they had daily Ebola updates, the CNN had one, most of the Western nations had one. So, they are setting up an agenda to remind the people – my goodness, there is something really happening there.
So, it’s got a dual meaning. One meaning is that this is a very important issue and we need to pay attention, so that the less sensitized people, the less critic campaign, so that we can sort of rally around and find a solution to it. The second one is that it really amplifies the weaknesses of Africans and a lot of their leaders, and their incapacity to respond quickly. And again, here is the West coming in from whatever it is, that is the savior to save these poor Africans who are always struggling to deal with their problems. These are the two faces that the media usually does present. But I have to say that it’s been really useful to force the African leaders to also quickly deal with their own problems, because, for the most part, we find that the African leaders are a little bit reactive to their own problems.
But we have to say that the media is being used for these purposes. And now, suddenly, I would say “suddenly”, because the media has now moved away dealing with the Ukrainian situation, with the Russian economic struggles, that the limelight on the Ebola outbreak has gone softer. So, people have the feeling that this issue has not gone down, is not as important or people are finding a solution and that’s one of the reasons the Ebola outbreak is not in the news anymore.
But it is still a huge problem, it hasn’t really subsided, because there are sort of cold ladies – Numbers and Statistics about it – that show that people are still dying and they are still going from door to door, especially in Sierra Leone or even in Liberia, to find the people who are still dying of it. So, the outbreak is still a serious business there, it is just that the world and the media is both amplifying and then reducing or taking away the focus. This is very-very essential and this is something that many media experts and analysts have looked at very seriously – how the media can really create attraction, but, at the same time, to divert attention from very important issues, very-very important especially in Africa.
What I'm putting forth is that the most important and the most untold story, and I think the biggest story about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa this year, has been what I call the economics of silence. That is a paradoxical story that asks the question – why hasn’t Côte d’Ivoire, which is the bordering country of both Guinea and Liberia, hasn’t had any cases of Ebola outbreak at all? This is a puzzling question. Or is it underreported by the media? Or has the country really done a great deal to fend off this outbreak by itself or with the help of the international community, the WHO, the French, or the American CDC, or Russia, or China helping out? Why haven’t we heard anything at all?
It is the most extraordinary paradox and silence. And that is one of the reasons I called it the economics of silence, because there is something there. That is quite puzzling, nothing at all. And the reason why I think it is a story is that the borders between Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, the borders between Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire are very porous. They have the same people going in between. And until today, since the beginning of this year 2014 we haven’t heard of any case at all, at least reported by the media or unreported by the media being played out. And I'm just sitting down saying – wow!
But do you happen to have any tentative explanations to that?
Koffi Kouakou: No, not at all. I mean, the only explanation I've given is the one I've given above. Either the health government structure in Côte d’Ivoire managed to really fend off this crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. I won’t put it on the side of luck, because today you can’t talk much about luck, most things are done by design. You have Guinea, you have Liberia, you also have the crisis moving to Mali and there were even talks about Burkina Faso. So, all these four countries are circling Côte d’Ivoire, and then suddenly nothing in Côte d’Ivoire. But we know that there is a great deal of movement between the populations of these five countries.
Koffi Kouakou: Yes, it is incredible. And it hasn’t been investigated, to my knowledge. So, if you guys are interested, you should pick on it. But that is the story of the year, to me, at least about the Ebola outbreak in the West Africa.
Says Aleksandrs Rozens, editor with the Bloomberg Briefs team in New York:
I can speak more to the economic aspect of it, specifically how it played out in the financial markets. And I’ll give you kind of an idea of how it works. In the financial markets, whether it is Wall Street in New York or Tokyo, or even the Russian equity markets and debt markets, wherever you go the investors can show how they are worried about certain stocks of businesses that can be impacted by a political or a natural disaster.
In the case of Ebola, what we saw is that there were different ways that the investors reacted to the news. And one way was in the share prices. So, if a company is publically traded, its stock will fall, if the investors feel that the business will see a decline in profit or revenue, or income.
In this case, the first businesses really to feel a shock from the news of Ebola were actually the airlines. And it was not just the US airlines, it was also the European carriers. And to a certain degree, I also checked and saw that Aeroflot, the price of the shares for Aeroflot also fell. We saw the shares of Delta American airlines, Southwest fell, the British Airways and Air France also saw a decline in the share prices.
So, that was one way that investors expressed their concern about what does Ebola mean for the airlines. And people were thinking: does this mean that airline travel gets cut because of the concerns about Ebola, will people just forgo travelling for business and pleasure.
The other way that the concerns played out in the financial markets was in a debt that companies issue to buy new planes or new equipment. And those are bonds or notes. And the yield which goes up when the bond prices fall, that yield grows substantially when the Ebola fears were really first being felt. And you can see that in the European markets, some of the early stories in the European media were showing up in September and that was already impacting, let’s say, credit default swaps or bond yields and equity prices of the European carriers, like the British Air and Air France.
The other way that this is showing up is also an unusual market where people gage volatility in the financial markets called the VIX index. And what this VIX index does is that it basically measures the volatility in the credit markets and financial markets broadly. What we saw is that this VIX index, which is actually a financial product that is traded on one of the exchanges spiked with the increase in coverage of Ebola.
So, in the first two weeks of October when we saw the news that there were cases of Ebola in the US, the concerns about what it means for different business and, just broadly, the economic activity showed up in the different corners of the financial markets. And one of them was this VIX index. So, when you look at the concerns that the investors have, what happens is that you see the declining equity prices, the share prices, you see that the bond yields go up and you see this VIX index go up.
There is another corner of the financial markets where people express concerns, and it is called the credit default swaps market. It is basically a place in the market where people can buy an insurance against defaults. So, for example, if I have a 5-year bond that was issued by Air France or by the British Air, I can buy an insurance for five years by entering a credit default swap contract, and effectively that insurance protects me against a default.
What was happening in the later part of September and early October, as the news coverage of Ebola really picks up, is that the cost of ensuring debt for certain businesses really increases. And what you are seeing there is that people don’t know what is going to happen to some of these airlines. At that point they didn’t have a cushion of low oil prices and the oil price was much higher, than where we are right now. And this was the concern – what the Ebola will do to the airline travel. And you are seeing some of this also pick up in some of the hotels and hospitality stocks as well. People were concern that you’d see a decline in the activity of travel for business and pleasure.
It is kind of interesting when I saw that you wanted to talk about this topic, I was curious to see where the airline shares were and all the bonds prices, and that volatility index. The volatility index has increased again, but it did come down after the concerns about Ebola abated. That VIX index is up on the concerns about the global growth. Specifically, it concerns the European growth and China’s growth, as well as what does the downturn in the oil price mean for a lot of the energy businesses. You are seeing that show up in the last couple of days.
But the airline stocks have actually risen, because the fears about Ebola have abated and the drop in the oil prices has helped them tremendously. That is one of the biggest line items for an airline. The bond yields have also come down. So, that means that the bond prices have risen, as the fears about Ebola have abated. So, you are seeing some changing in prices, that with the changes in prices that we saw in the late September early October, as the fears about Ebola became more pronounced, those prices have sort of retreated and came back to the normal levels.
There was one company that was in trouble, because that was a mining company that was in Sierra Leone, which was one of the affected countries in the west Africa. And that business was unable to basically raise capital in the credit markets because of the Ebola outbreak. The investors were concerned about what would happen to the mining operations if the Ebola outbreak got worse. And so, the London Mining had a difficult time raising capital and it actually entered administration, which is in the Great Britain a form of entering a bankruptcy process.
So, these are the different ways that played out. And we don’t know what all this Ebola outbreak means for the economies of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. In the case of Liberia, there is some oil exploration that they are trying to bring about. Sierra Leone has diamonds and bauxite. And Guinea has bauxite as the major mineral resource that it exports. But when it comes to the businesses that saw the impact almost immediately, we saw this with the airlines stocks. And that is largely because we weren’t sure what kind of impact it will be on the airline travel from the Ebola outbreak.