Exactly one year ago, I received an unexpected call from my manager just as I was finishing a week of paternity leave following the birth of my daughter. She asked me to lead an “absolutely urgent” project and said she was cutting her summer break short to return to the office. That project was on Ebola response. We had monitored Ebola cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone over the previous months with growing concern, but now the World Bank was mobilizing its first emergency funding commitment to help the three affected countries contain the disease’s spread and help communities cope with the economic fallout.
In the last couple of months, we saw some amazing events making the news headlines. From World Bank President Jim Kim’s outstanding lecture at Georgetown University on “Lessons from Ebola”, to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) announcement that Ebola response is moving to the next stage, one may think that the pandemic is over. That no more lives will be lost to this terrifying disease.
But voices from the scientists, who have been the first to discover the Ebola virus last year, raised above the general enthusiasm and warned the international community to stay focused. Researchers from Institut Pasteur in France fear that the virus has mutated and could have become even more contagious. The new variation poses a higher risk of transmission. This means that dozens, if not thousands, of lives could be again at risk.
And while WHO shifts the focus from slowing transmission of Ebola to ending the epidemic, the world may actually be at the verge of a new pandemic emergency. With the recent surge in new cases in Sierra Leone, the world must stay focused until we reach and maintain zero cases in each affected country.
The UN Secretary General convened an International Ebola Recovery Conference last week to advocate that recovery efforts go beyond redressing direct development losses to build back better and ensure greater resilience.
In May, the World Health Organization released numbers on how many health workers in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have been affected by Ebola. The numbers are striking: For these heroic workers, the probability of being infected by Ebola is 21 to 32 times more likely than for a member of the general public.
With the Ebola outbreak waning but not yet over, the three most affected countries must now find ways to rebuild their economies and strengthen their health systems to try to prevent another health crisis in the future.
To that end, the presidents of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone came to the World Bank on April 17 to ask for help funding an $8 billion, 10-year recovery plan for the three countries, with $4 billion needed over the next four years to accelerate recovery. More than $1 billion was pledged by the end of a high-level meeting at the start of the World Bank Group -IMF Spring Meetings – including $650 million from the World Bank Group.
On March 5, Liberian physicians discharged Beatrice Yardolo, an English teacher, from the hospital, hoping that she would be their last Ebola patient. Unfortunately, last Friday another person in Liberia tested positive for the disease that has killed more than 10,000 people in West Africa.
The bad news was a reminder that the world must remain vigilant and insist that we get to zero Ebola cases everywhere. We also must support Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in their efforts to build back better health care systems to prevent the next epidemic.
Beatrice survived Ebola, but she and the other survivors have paid dearly because of the outbreak. She lost three of her 10 children to Ebola, her home was encircled in quarantine, and she’s been unable to work. She and her country face a daunting road back to recovery and they remain at risk of Ebola as long as there is a single case in the region.
Much of the media coverage of children during West Africa’s Ebola epidemic has been focused on orphans. Repeatedly, we have read heartbreaking stories of children who have lost parents to the disease and even been rejected by their communities. These children deserve our attention: We know that losing a parent has both short-term and long-term impacts. Evidence from Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and across Africa demonstrates significant reductions in educational outcomes for orphans in the short run. Evidence from Tanzania shows that adverse education and health effects persist into adulthood.
Most people are aware of Ebola's devastating impact on human health. To date, over 22,800 people have been infected and 9,000 have died. Its effects on West Africa's economy have also been well-documented. According to recent World Bank estimates, Ebola will cause at least US$ 1.6 billion in lost economic growth in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2015.