EDITORIAL: Ebola: A few lessons for Tanzania on openness

Saturday October 5 2019

A member of the Crisis Response Unit measures the temperature of a visitor at  Ebola treatment centre in DRC.

A member of the Crisis Response Unit measures the temperature of a visitor at Ebola treatment centre in DRC. Tanzanian government says it has no confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The EastAfrican
By The EastAfrican
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Tanzania has been in the the spotlight in the past fortnight following suspicion that the deadly Ebola virus could have been the cause of a couple of deaths, claims that Dar has vehemently denied.

The deaths were reported in the commercial capital Dar es Salaam and in the northwestern part of the country. While the World Health Organisation and Medicines sans Frontiers suspect that the victims succumbed to Ebola, the closest Dar has come to mentioning the E word has been to euphemistically seek funding for Ebola ''preparedness.''

It is in the region’s best interests that indeed Tanzania is free of the disease. There is, so far, no solid evidence to suggest that there is Ebola in Tanzania.

Recent history, however, has useful lessons about what not to do when faced with the danger of a highly mobile and infectious disease.

As the HIV pandemic spread in the early 1980s, the instinctive reaction of many African governments, concerned about its impact on their economies, was denial.

Perhaps because it did not have a tourism industry to protect and largely isolated at the beginning, Uganda’s new regime, fresh from a five-year guerrilla war, opted for the only tool that did not require much money: Information.

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The country educated the masses on HIV, its causes and how it is spread. A few years later, as Kampala successfully rolled back the HIV pandemic, the disease appeared to rise in almost equal proportion in countries that had initially touted it a Ugandan problem.

A key to limiting the spread of any disease is to break the transmission chain. Ebola outbreaks have in the past been fairly localised because the virus loses mobility by killing its victims before they can spread it. That it has spread out to as far as West Africa, however, is testimony to improved intra-African connectivity.

By virtue of its natural proximity to the epicentre of the current outbreak and vibrant trade movements, East Africa is at risk and it should not be surprising if a case or two were reported here.

In the circumstances, the public and the international community are likely to have more confidence in doing business with us, if they are inspired by the precautionary measures we take.

Kenya, which does not even share a land border with the DR Congo, has deployed Ebola surveillance teams at its entry points just as have Uganda and Rwanda.

Tanzania should not give in to stigma. A century ago this year, fuelled by the movements occasioned by the First World War, the Spanish Influenza epidemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

As the world gets ever more connected, thanks to air transport, the danger that a pathogen can spread far and wide and equally fast, is ever so real. Yet the world has become wiser and has devised the tools needed to minimise their possible impact on the global economy.

In the past decade alone, the world has experienced several bouts of Avian influenza. Yet doors were not slammed on China where the outbreak originated. It is only by opening up that Tanzania will preclude unnecessary panic and disruption to its economy that it fears.

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