ADDIS ABABA: As Africa’s leaders meet in Ethiopia to discuss the Ebola crisis, expectations of firm action will be tempered by criticism over the continent’s poor record in the early stages of the epidemic.
The outbreak is a priority on the agenda of the 54-nation African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa on Saturday, yet the bloc is still smarting from criticism that it reacted too slowly to the outbreak.
Health workers and cash have flooded in from the United States, Britain and even Cuba as part of a UN-led surge to battle an epidemic which has seen nearly 9,000 deaths in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Yet it was only in September — 10 months after the virus emerged and a month after it was declared a “health emergency of international concern” —that the AU held an emergency summit.
The three hardest-hit nations have expressed disappointment that their continental neighbors seemed initially to be much quicker to shut borders and ban flights than to deploy resources.
Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma hinted at his disillusionment in August when he greeted a $500,000 donation from Gambia with an ill-disguised dig at his other African neighbors.
“In moments like this, we will remember our friends including those that are rallying round us and those that show true spirit of African solidarity,” he said.
He added that “we expect African countries and organizations including ECOWAS and the African Union to rally round and show solidarity which the Gambian president has demonstrated”.
A week earlier Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, a senior official, had expressed “shock” that South Africa had donated a mobile testing laboratory on one hand while banning Sierra Leoneans on the other.
The hurt was shared in Liberia where Musa Bility, head of the national football association, told AFP in August that travel bans imposed by several neighbors were “un-African”.
Nelson Mandela’s widow Graca Machel was more explicit when she blasted African leaders in November for an “inadequate” response to Ebola which demonstrated a lack of regard for human life.
The AU itself has recognized its shortcomings. At the height of the epidemic, members had deployed just 100 volunteers to west Africa, a quarter of the number provided by Cuba alone.
“With the wisdom of hindsight, our responses at all levels — continental, global and national — were slow, and often knee-jerk reactions that did not always help the situation,” the bloc’s chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma admitted at a meeting with the heads of the United Nations and World Bank on October 28.
Politicians and aid agencies have noted a better response since, however, with 800 of 1,000 volunteers pledged in October now in place.