No. 223


As plagues go, Ebola is pathetic – yes it is lethal once individuals are affected but it is very hard to catch. According to the World Health Organisation, Ebola spreads through “human-to-human transmission via direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people, and with surfaces and materials (e.g. bedding, clothing) contaminated with these fluids. … Burial ceremonies in which mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased person can also play a role in the transmission.”[i]

But airborne like the flu it is not – making it easy to contain if strict quarantine is enforced. The problem is that this has not happened in Africa, so that the number of cases is expected to increase exponentially, from 5000 (officially) now to 60 000 by year-end.[ii]

The Crows are clueless if it can be stopped at that level – although President Obama is obviously not optimistic – despatching 3000 military engineers and logistics specialists to Liberia, charged with creating 17 treatment centres and distributing 400,000 home treatment kits.[iii]

And the government of Sierra Leone is desperate. The entire country was under curfew Friday-Sunday so that soldiers, police and officials could check every house in the country for infected people.[iv]

Desperate stuff, which I’m guessing will not work, for the very reason the epidemic has kicked on, as Peter Curson explains:

Local people remain highly suspicious of health care workers and have avoided any sort of contact. Public fear, anxiety and hysteria rule and many people fear that if they report a case or possible contact they run the risk of being ostracised by their local community. The practice of isolating and quarantining whole villages or city suburbs has also led to an outburst of anger and mistrust among local communities with many people claiming that they may well die of hunger before they die of Ebola.[v]

In other words, institutional failure spreads the disease. Yes, poverty means African countries do not have the health systems they need to treat sufferers. But people do not believe governments will act in their interest. And I wonder why they think that. Here’s a hint – the Liberian government turned a slum in the capital, Monrovia, into a ghetto, hoping to contain Ebola there by closing it off from the rest of the country:

Barricades and barbed wire have gone up, and troops posted. Ships started patrolling the waterfront on Wednesday to further restrict the movement of the 70,000 or so residents. Food prices have skyrocketed … hundreds of people lined up for government handouts of rice and water.[vi]

Yes, the Liberian government left the poor to rot. And, in Guinea, people who fear workers and officials spread Ebola under them. [vii]

The problem is that people do not trust the government. To her credit, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has done a great deal to clean up Liberia, creating an anti-corruption commission which appears to work.[viii] But, on the street, people do not see government as working for them. As the US State Department points out, there is mob violence and vigilantism, caused by “the public’s lack of confidence in the police and judicial system”. [ix]

Things are much worse in Sierra Leone with “prolonged detention and imprisonment under harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons and jails; widespread official corruption in all branches of government; and trafficking in persons, including for child labour.”[x]

That the Ebola epidemic in both countries is worse than need be is because ordinary people see the state as inept at best or inimical:

Local mistrust of deeply corrupt and ineffective state institutions—particularly related to security, but also health services and even a decreased faith in modern medicine itself—have contributed to a ‘flight response’ among communities in which cases of Ebola have appeared.[xi]

Which makes the case for ICAC equivalents. The Crows are not suggesting sending ICAC counsel assisting, Geoffrey Watson SC, to West Africa, although many people in both Labor and Liberal parties would consider this a splendid idea. What both Sierra Leone and Liberia need is a means of restoring trust – and that will take more than internationally funded medical help. It will need evidence that the rules apply to all.

When corruption, incompetence and indifference are rampant and unpunished the compact between government and citizens is broken and when that occurs the impact of any crisis is magnified because the community unity and trust civil order depends on is broken.

The real damage done by the rogues pinged by ICAC and its equivalents in the other states do is the way they erode the bounds of trust that make democracies work. When these bounds go, societies are ill-prepared for crises. Including ours.




[i] World Health Organisation, “Ebola virus disease,” September 2014 @ recovered on September 20

[ii] Michaeleen Doucleff, “A frightening curve: how fast is the Ebola outbreak growing?” National Public Radio, September 18 @ recovered on September 20

[iii] Helene Cooper, Michael D Shear and Denise Grady, “US to commit up to 3000 troops to fight Ebola in Africa,” New York Times, September 15

[iv] Adam Nossiter, “Lockdown begins in Sierra Leone to battle Ebola,” New York Times, September 19

[v] Peter Curson, “Ebola rules,” Online Opinion September 18 @ recovered on September 20

[vi] Per Liljas, “Liberia’s West Point slim reels from the nightmare of Ebola,” Time August 22 @ recovered on September 20

[vii] Ruth Maclean, “Guinea villages murder Ebola aid workers sent to help them,” The Times, September 20

[viii] Transparency International, “:Overview of corruption and anti-corruption in Liberia, March 5 2012 @ recovered on September 20

[ix] US Department of State, “Human rights report: Liberia,” February 27 @ recovered on September 20

[x] US Department of State, Human rights report: Sierra Leone,” February 27 @ recovered on September 20

[xi] Thomas Dempsey, “Ebola, security and governance in West Africa,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, August 11 @ recovered on September 20