Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, said Ebola could lead to failed states in West Africa. In this two-part series, we consider that possibility. Part One of the series examined Somalia, the consummate failed state. We looked at Somalia’s lack of security, control of territory, accountability for political actors and institutional development. Based on those criteria, it is evident that Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, though devastated by Ebola, are far from failed states.
Somalia will open its national postal service for the first time since 1991, a significant gain in expected services provided by states. The country has been without a post office for more than two decades. As part of this re-introduction, the country now has postal codes for the first time in its history. Other commonplace government services are similarly disadvantaged.
In addition to a breakdown of services and security, Somalia cannot fairly claim complete control of its territory. The country’s north has two of the world’s most prominent separatist movements, with the creation of quasi-states within a state in Somaliland and Puntland. Both top lists of unrecognized states and generally include phrases such as “a haven of jollity and calm” compared to Somalia as a whole. While Somalia has failed to produce security or provide citizens with basic services, Somaliland and Puntland have managed to create islands of calm in an otherwise problematic neighborhood.
This is the portrait of a failed state: corrupt government that fails to provide even the most basic of services cannot provide security for its populace and cannot claim control of its territory. Ebola, while a major issue throughout West Africa, will probably not lead to such state failure in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone.
This is not to say Ebola is not a tremendous problem throughout West Africa. As the outbreak continues, the number infected is increasing at troubling levels. According to the World Health Organization statement, the number of new cases is increasing exponentially. Bruce Aylward, the WHO deputy who delivered Chan’s statement, said he hoped for a peak of 5000 to 10,000 new cases weekly in December, but that presumes some success and momentum from the global effort to stem the disease, which has been slow to begin.
In a piece written for The Guardian, Bintu Sannoh, a 13-year-old from Sierra Leone detailed how devastating the disease had been to her daily life. Bintu described how for three weeks her community was quarantined and could not conduct business outside the quarantine area. This contributes to World Bank estimates of the devastating economic impact of the disease. The isolation further resulted in hunger and fear of the police and military who were enforcing the quarantine.
There are many similar tales of life in Ebola-plagued areas of West Africa, but they do not rise to the failed state level of Somalia. Thomas Frieden, director of the American Centers for Disease Control, told Vox that the most dangerous word in the current Ebola outbreak is “endemic.” This would mean that rather than there being outbreaks and episodes of the disease, it would become a constant threat in West Africa, and perhaps its neighbors. While this is a troubling possibility, it is not yet the case. Without such an “endemic” permanent destabilization, there will be time for international relief and public health efforts to take place.
The disease’s ill effects have also returned focus to public health emergencies and the necessity of government funding to prevent them. Francis Collins, head of the American National Institutes of Health, said in the Huffington Post that reduced government spending on research for public health emergencies had left the developed world unprepared for such an outbreak. The agency “probably would have had a vaccine in time” had it not been for the lack of government funding, Collins said. Potential vaccines have been fast tracked, with Russia already claiming to have one that is viable and a Canadian vaccine going into human clinical trials.
There is also some evidence that the situation for Ebola-stricken areas is already improving. According to the Globe and the Mail, Aylward of WHO said a “behaviour change” is helping reduce the spread in some areas of the afflicted countries. The disease’s spread is also slowing in some areas. While these seem very small in the face of apocalyptic prognostications for millions of individuals afflicted with the disease across the globe, they are a start. As international efforts begin to ramp up there is reason to hope that the disease will not enter the endemic destabilization levels Frieden fears.
To say that Ebola will probably not lead to state failure is not an attempt to denigrate the horrors that currently exist in West Africa. The disease has exposed tremendous state weakness and failures of the international community in readying for global health emergencies that rise to the level of threats to international peace and security. However, when the head of the World Health Organization joins a chorus of voices that decry the disease as the near end of days, it does nothing to help those afflicted or the countries struggling to deal with outbreak. Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are not Somalia. Pretending they are does no good for anyone.
Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.
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