West Africa Transitioning To New Normal In Wake Of Ebola

Eight months ago, the Ebola virus outbreak was spiraling out of control, with as many as 200 new cases being reported weekly.  Although the disease has since peaked, it still poses a threat to West Africa – in the past week alone, 700 homes in Sierra Leone were placed under quarantine.
Most non-governmental organizations responding to the outbreak expect to continue to deal with pockets of the virus for the near future. However, after months of closed schools and businesses, countries are also beginning to rebuild and are starting to establish a new normal.
Last week, I spoke to representatives from NGOs working in three of the hardest hit countries – Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. I asked them what still needs to be done in the intermediate and long-term to deal with the damage the virus caused. They resoundingly told me that despite relief efforts totaling into the billions of dollars, much of it from private donations, the action list is a long one. Here is a summary:

  • Reopen schools: Schools in the three most affected West Africa countries were closed for at least six months. UNICEF estimates that closures disrupted the education of more than five million students. Once children leave school, they are unlikely to return, making them more vulnerable to labor and sex exploitation. Schools in Guinea have recently reopened, and ones in Liberia began reopening this week.  Still, students and teachers face risk from the lack of appropriate sanitation and hygiene supplies, along with infection prevention equipment.
  • Help for orphaned children: UNICEF estimates that 16,000 children lost one, and about 3,600 lost both parents. The NGOs I spoke with said support is needed to help trace and reunite missing family members as well as to place children with extended families. Children lucky enough to be placed with extended families will also need psychosocial support as well as food and basic needs. For most in these countries, poverty is already a daily challenge, and taking on another mouth to feed adds to that burden.
  • Open closed businesses and restart agriculture: Quarantines, travel and trade restrictions, disruption in crop planting and sickness and death among the workforce increased unemployment and resulted in closed markets. While there has been some recent improvement, market activity is still well below normal. Business owners and agriculture producers need programs to help them rebuild to their normal production levels. Some also need appropriate sanitation and hygiene supplies and infection control equipment.
  • Help for households that suffered lost income: The World Bank estimates the virus contributed to a loss of income for up to 70 percent of households in affected countries. In Liberia, more than 70 percent of families saw their income drop an average of 39 percent. In Sierra Leone, more than 180,000 people have lost their jobs. In countries where 50 percent of people were already living below poverty level, many families are dealing with new lows when it comes to food and needed household items.  Trusted organizations need cash to directly distribute to families and to pay for community work for cash projects.
  • Rebuild and strengthen the healthcare infrastructure: The Ebola outbreak– which claimed the lives of 500 healthcare workers in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia – crippled the ability of health care centers, still the front line against the spread of the disease. Because the virus has left behind a healthcare system so damaged, it’s also a struggle to also treat routine illness or address everyday health problems. In addition to rebuilding the capacity of health systems, public trust has to be restored so people believe what doctors and health officials tell them, especially about continuing to guard against Ebola. Overall, much help is needed to support training and recruiting new healthcare workers, and the implementation of stronger nutrition services and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) protocols.

This will not be the last time the global community has to face a pandemic disease. To ensure the world is ready, strong preparedness measures, including vaccinations and other preventative steps, are essential. In the meantime, there’s still a big role for private donors. If you want to help, a good start is to look at what needs to be done now and decide what aligns with your giving goals.  Then take action to leverage your funds accordingly. You can learn more about who is working to meet these needs on the Center for Disaster Philanthropy Ebola web profile.

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