20 August, 2015
The Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone:
Did the international community tackle the issue properly?
by Shu Uchida
The first Ebola virus disease (EVD) case in Sierra Leone was reported in a small village on the border with Guinea in March 2014, and by 9 August 2015 the number of reported Ebola cases had grown to 13,470 (WHO). In Sierra Leone alone, 3,951 people were killed by this disease (WHO).
I was in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, when the first Ebola case was reported. I felt that the people of Sierra Leone were convinced that Ebola was coming to Freetown sooner or later, and were frightened. Yet it seemed that they did not know how to deal with this scourge. After the first Ebola case was reported, I left Sierra Leone bound for France. When I flew from Freetown to Paris, I witnessed a crystal clear and striking contrast. When I left the international airport in Sierra Leone in the early evening, I was able to see almost nothing from above the sky of Freetown because there was no electricity at that time (electricity was available only few hours a day even in Freetown except for those who could afford to utilize private generators). And, in the middle of the night, I flew over Paris heading to the Charles-de-Gaulle international airport. Paris was very bright and glittering with all its city lights. However, I was unable to feel the beauty of the lights. I thought only about what is it that makes this huge difference between the two cities. I still remember this unforgettable moment.
Sierra Leone experienced civil war from 1991 to 2002, a war that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths at the very least, and the displacement of more than 2 million people (CIA). Sierra Leone is rich in diamonds, and the illegally traded gems known as blood diamonds played a significant role and added fuel to the fire during the civil war (Jenkins and Umoh).
Since the end of the civil war, Sierra Leone has made progress towards reconciliation, but poverty and unemployment are still major challenges (BBC). Also, it is difficult to say that the governance of the country is steady enough due to the negative impact of the long-lasting civil war.
In March 2014, the closure of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office marked the end of more than 15 years of peacekeeping and political operations there (CIA). However, right after these UN operations were closed, a new evil caused the disaster again in Sierra Leone: the Ebola outbreak.
In my opinion, we cannot blame the weak governance of Sierra Leone for its inability to stop the Ebola outbreak. Rather, the international community might be a better target for our blame. Sierra Leone had experienced an 11-year armed conflict, and it was/is still in the process of reconstruction, and in a state of dire poverty.
Galtung differentiates the two aspects of peace: Positive and Negative (Galtung 1967). Negative peace is just the state of affairs in which there is an absence armed conflict. Positive peace, on the other hand, is a state without structural violence such as poverty or high inequality (Galtung 1967). Based on these definitions, Sierra Leone had attained negative peace, but not positive peace, even in a modest form. According to UNDP Sierra Leone, 60% of Sierra Leoneans live below the national poverty line (UNDP). The weak governance, which helped allow the Ebola outbreak to happen, could be the legacy of civil war. In this context, we should ask ourselves: Although the self-help is the most important, did we (and our governments) cooperate with Sierra Leone adequately to strengthen their governance in order to prevent the Ebola outbreak?
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have been exceptionally active in dealing with the issue of Ebola on the ground. Yet they are an NGO, not a sovereign state. The states making up the 'international community' seemed to focus mainly on border and shoreline operations. There was certainly a sense of terror regarding the possibility of the spread of Ebola to 'our country', and there was thus much effort focused simply on regulating the influx of people from West Africa. Needless to say, the function of sovereign states is to protect its own citizens. Also, there are a number of limitations of our governments including the design of international cooperation schemes or budgetary issues. Even so, was this response appropriate?
It is a largely shared view among experts on peacebuilding that the root causes of armed conflicts must be identified and tackled in order to put out the fire completely. When we look at the issue of piracy off the coast of Somalia, it is clear. If we don’t deal with the root causes inland, we cannot eradicate the issues off-shore – those that inevitably affect us. When it comes to the issues of the Ebola outbreak, we should not deal with them in a superficial manner. We had to and now have to deal with the issues on the ground in West Africa not only based on humanitarian grounds, but also as the most effective measures to solve the problems.
The disaster lingers on. We should reflect on our own country’s policies toward the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
BBC News. Sierra Leone country profile – Overview. (accessed August 18, 2015).
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The World Fact Book. Africa: Sierra Leone. (accessed August 18, 2015).
Galtung, Johan. THEORIES OF PEACE. A Synthetic Approach to Peace Thinking. International Peace Research Institute, Oslo. September, 1967.
Jenkins, Megan, and E. Umoh. Africa in Conflict and Crisis: Critical Perspectives on the Role of Conflict Diamonds and Oil on the Livelihood of Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
(accessed August 18, 2015).
UNDP Sierra Leone. About Sierra Leone. (accessed August 18, 2015).
World Health Organization (WHO). Ebola Situation Report. (accessed August 18, 2015).