The “Africa rising” narrative of the past couple of years is emotionally compelling for anyone living here. Not because such a rise would be deserved, but because it happens to be true.
Investment in sub-Saharan Africa has been booming and the middle-class is burgeoning. Although not everywhere triumphant, democracy has taken vigorous root.
On the gross domestic product league table, Nigerian growth has knocked South Africa into second place. Instead of a sullen resentment towards the economic giant at the southern end of the continent, there is now an unexpected confidence that other African countries can not only replicate SA’s growth path but surpass it.
Then suddenly along comes the plague, an unforeseen “black swan” event that churns and muddies the waters.
Ebola, a highly infectious viral disease of terrible aspect — a 50% fatality rate following vomiting, diarrhoea, organ failure, and often bleeding from every orifice — spreads like a veld fire through West Africa. The death toll is around 2 000 and according to the World Health Organisation, likely to reach at least five-fold that.
Suddenly Africa’s institutional vulnerability stands stark. And for once, let’s not just immediately blame it all on 19th century European conquest. Rapacious indigenous political elites have been far more damaging than historical iniquities and inequities.
Take the countries worst affected by Ebola. With combined populations of 10 million, Liberia and Sierra Leone jointly can muster barely 170 medical doctors. Ivory Coast, one of the next dominos threatened by Ebola’s spread, has only 50 physicians.
While Guinea and particularly Nigeria fare far better statistically — Nigeria with a population of 170 million has about 35 000 physicians — the on-the-ground realities are nevertheless grim. Civil conflict, such as the rampaging forces of Boko Haram in Nigeria, mean that often the only health services are provided by western aid agencies and organisations like Doctors Without Borders.
After decades of neglect the continent’s health infrastructure is dilapidated, with care truncated and ineffectual. Most hospitals are in short supply of even the most basic items, including the simple rubber gloves necessary to avoid touching the infectious bodily fluids of Ebola patients.
The latest Ebola outbreak might be new, but the sorry health scenario is not. Africa has a tenth of the world’s population but bears 25% of the global disease burden. More than a 100 000 people are estimated to die annually in West Africa of malaria alone.
Yet only six of 53 African countries including, ironically, Liberia have met the 2001 Abuja Declaration pledge to dedicate 15% of national budgets to improving healthcare. Indeed, a third of those nations have actually cut health spending.
This pathetic performance has little to do with the legacies of western imperialism and colonialism. It has lots to do with corrupt leaders and a lack of accountability on the part of ruling elites, or indeed any empathy on the part of these leaders with the people who are nominally their citizens.
In the Osun Defender, Nigerian columnist Pius Adesanmi writes that the irresponsible leaders of Africa have one solution for every problem — “escape and leave the people at the mercy of the elements”. “The hospitals are in a shambles? No problem, we shall outsource our illnesses to the healthcare systems of South Africa, India, Germany, USA, and Canada.”
“Then comes Ebola. Then comes the democracy of death. Your private jets and helicopters are no answers to this one.” Were it not for the lives lost, writes Adesanmi, he would love Ebola, since the virus is creating “a strange, unfamiliar creature called responsible leadership”.
Ebola is actually not a black swan event. While it was unforeseen by feckless governments, that certainly does not make it unforeseeable. It has been smouldering in the forests of Africa since the last outbreak and health authorities had predicted its return.
Fortunately, despite all its whining about colonial oppressors, Africa has a tried and tested fallback position. You will note that it has not gone to the Bric nations — Brazil, Russia, India and China — for assistance in fighting Ebola. Its first port of call has been the evil western nations, not only for the medical expertise needed, but for the cash readies needed to mount emergency interventions.
South Africa, alone on the continent, is likely to be able to cope with an outbreak, should Ebola spread here. It is in the comparative robustness of SA’s political, economic and social infrastructure that the country’s true competitive advantage lies.
Investors won’t abandon Africa because of Ebola. There is money to be made. But many investors are likely to take a deep breath and conclude that just maybe it’s better to use SA as the staging post for their continental adventures. After all, Africa is one country, isn’t it?
Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye