Friday, August 28, 2015

Sierra Leone's success against Ebola helped by local chiefs

Tribal politics are often blamed for many of Africa's troubles, including the response to Ebola. The multitude of mother tongues posed problems for the response to Ebola since many of the communications about the disease and how to avoid it were in English or French and only 20% of the affected countries' populations speak either of those languages. Some traditional healers were reluctant to refer patients to hospitals. 

However, local tribal leaders also played an important role in the effective response to the disease in Sierra Leone, where the last person known to have Ebola in Sierra Leone was discharged on Tuesday.

According to The Economist, Ebola in Sierra Leone struck Sierra Leone first in the east side of the country. But the disease was controlled in the south-east earlier than it was in the north-west (see map), despite the north-west receiving more aid. The explanation given in the article is that two doctors connected to the local chief called for a meeting early in the epidemic; many local leaders attended the meeting, and laws were passed (such as a ban on taking in sick relatives) to contain the spread of the disease. 

In the north, on the other hand, government-appointed officials pushed aside local leaders, which led to a lack of cooperation. Only later, with the army manning checkpoints and more cooperation between the government and local leaders, was the disease contained in the north.  

The episode is a reminder that many African governments suffer from a lack of perceived legitimacy, because of the mismatch between local authority and central authority. But it is also a hopeful reminder that if central governments are willing to work together with local authorities, this can lead to greater effectiveness in tackling their countries' problems. 

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