THE RAVAGING of populations in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea by the Ebola virus over the past year has been devastating. The virus killed 10,702 people and left behind vast economic and emotional tolls. The rest of the world responded slowly to the outbreak but eventually rallied. Now it is time to do the same with the aftermath and extend a hand for rebuilding.
The economic impact is “as much a tragedy and disaster as the disease,” President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia told us Thursday. In those early frightening months after the outbreak began, airlines abandoned her country, markets closed, growth stalled and tourism and foreign investment vanished. The story was much the same in the other two nations. Liberia’s economy is slowly recovering, Guinea is stagnating and Sierra Leone is suffering severe recession, according to a World Bank update released April 15. All three face serious vulnerabilities, including decimated government budgets and the need to rebuild employment, education, infrastructure and routine health care.
During visits to Washington this week, Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, Guinean President Alpha Condé and Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma appealed to the international community not to forsake them. They asked for debt relief of $3.2 billion and an $8 billion commitment from different sources over several years for a kind of post-Ebola Marshall Plan. The details will have to be hammered out — a donors conference is set for July — but in general we think their appeal makes sense. The World Bank announced Friday it would provide about $650 million in aid over the next 12 to 18 months.
The outbreak has receded, but weak local health-care systems proved inadequate when the virus began to spread last year, and improvements are vital in all three countries, especially a much-strengthened system of surveillance to spot any resurgence. Trained health-care workers are in short supply. A small but important step was taken recently in the announcement that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will help set up an African CDC that could keep the continent one step ahead of another scourge. But the rest of the world also has a stake in making sure that the region builds a better firewall against infectious disease.
All three nations need to recover from the social toll. Ms. Johnson Sirleaf described her efforts to empower communities to fight the disease, a far more effective approach than commands from above. One of the most profound lessons of the Ebola disaster is that, in addition to the need for treatment centers and provisions, an outbreak is a crisis of human behavior. Fear can unleash irrational and dangerous actions that only spread the illness. It is essential to build trust with people affected.
Ms. Johnson Sirleaf acknowledged that “we made some false starts” by trying to restrict neighborhoods rather than enlist their help. But she also noted that Liberia took hard steps, such as carrying out cremations instead of burials, an unheard-of departure from tradition that was necessary to stop the virus from spreading. All these lessons must be learned and learned well, because there will be a next time.