Diaries From the Field Blog

Lessons, Impact, and the "Fearonomics" of Ebola in Nigeria

July 27, 2015
Passport Stamped with Ebola Sticker
Passport stamped with Ebola sticker with symptoms and helpline
One of the many Ebola informational posters in offices across Lagos

By Dr. Sulzhan Bali, MSc-GH '16

24th of July.

The day Macchu Picchu was discovered in 1911.

The day Apollo XI returned to the Earth after the first successful mission of taking humans to the moon in 1969. 

Yet, in Nigeria, that day in 2014 will always be marked as the day Patrick Sawyer—the index patient of Eboladied and set an outbreak in motion in one of the most populated cities in Africa. Patrick Sawyer was a Liberian-American citizen and a diplomat who violated his Ebola quarantine to travel to Nigeria for an ECOWAS convention. His collapse at the airport, coupled with an ongoing strike by Nigerian doctors in public hospitals, landed him at a private hospital in Obalende, where he infected eight other people.

Patrick Sawyer’s death marked the beginning of an Ebola epidemic in Lagos, a city of 21 million. Lagos is a major economic hub in Africa and one of its biggest cities. An uncontrolled Ebola epidemic would have a far-reaching economic impact beyond the borders of the city, its country, and even its continent.

A recent study has shown that Ebola virus remains active in a dead body for more than a week. Add to this that the body is most infectious in the hours before death, and it is a "virus bomb" waiting to happen if handled incorrectly. West Africa, especially Nigeria, has a strong funeral culture. This Ebola-infected Liberian diplomat’s body was transported and incinerated in accordance with the WHO and CDC protocol. This feat was achieved despite immense political and diplomatic pressure to return the body for funeral rites. It represents one of the many cases of collaboration and "clinical system governance" that are at the heart of the successful containment of Ebola in Nigeria. It is one of the many stories that I'm hoping to highlight in my research on the role of the private sector in Nigeria’s successful Ebola containment.

As part of my research, I am looking at 10 different economic sectors to understand how the Ebola outbreak impacted the private sector and how the private sector dealt with the challenges that the Ebola outbreak posed. My hope is that this research will lead to lessons for the private sector on how, in times of an epidemic, they can help the government to mitigate the disease’s economic impact. I also hope that the resulting report will help governments engage with the private sector more effectively in times of emergencies.

With many outbreaks, especially of highly fatal diseases such as Ebola, fear is the biggest demon. This fear has led to the crippling of economies of Ebola-affected countries. This fear has cost Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia 12 % of their GDP in foregone income and unraveled the years of progress made by these countries. However, this fear is not just a phenomenon limited to West Africa. I had a very personal encounter with this fear recently, when I was quarantined for a few hours in the United States (despite Nigeria being declared Ebola free since October 2014). 

It has been a humbling experience so far, as I try to understand how this fear and the hysteria around Ebola can lead to significant behavioral changessome of them necessary but some extreme. Everyone I speak to has a story to share. Some people tell of how they bought more than two bus tickets to prevent sitting next to other people. Others tell of hospitals resembling "ghost buildings" as people avoided hospitals and doctors like the plague. Many tell of the "Ebola elbow-shake" that replaced the usual handshake or hug. The reality is that although the Ebola outbreak infected 21 people in Nigeria, it actually affected the lives of 21 million people in Lagos alone, in one way or another. I have come to realize that there is a thin line between precaution and hysteria. Maintaining the equilibrium between the two is the key to controlling the disease and mitigating its economic impact.

As I wrap up my interviews, a few questions resonate with me time and time again from these sessions. For the doctors who died in Nigeria’s fight against Ebola:

“Can we truly say our country is a safer place after their sacrifice?”

“Are we prepared for the next time?”

“Ebola is back in Liberia. What can we do to prevent Ebola from coming back to Nigeria?” 

And for myself:

“How will your report help Nigeria?”

These are the questions that keep me going. Although my report may not be able to answer all of the aforementioned questions, I do hope it will at least get policy makers, students, and advocacy groups talking about how countries can be better prepared for the next big outbreak and how public-private collaboration can lead a country out of an epidemic and on a path of recovery.

To end on a positive note, 24th July, 2015 also marked one year since the last polio case in Nigeria—an achievement that clearly shows what collaboration in global health can achieve.

(To learn more about my research or to contribute/collaborate in my study, please contact me.)

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