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Turning the Page on Ebola

WASHINGTON, DC – The Ebola outbreak that began last year in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, three of the four countries of the Mano River Union, is the most severe on record since the disease was first diagnosed in Central Africa in 1976. The impact of the epidemic has been devastating, calling into question our three countries’ significant socioeconomic progress in the aftermath of decades of conflict and instability.

The region has so far registered a total of 25,791 cases and 10,689 deaths – almost ten times the number of deaths from all other Ebola epidemics combined. For 2014, the projected growth rates for our three countries were 4.5%-11.3%. These projections have now been reduced to 2.2% at best. In the absence of mitigation measures, a recession cannot be ruled out.

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The uncontrolled spread of the disease exposed the shortcomings of our national health care systems, as well as regional and global institutions’ weak capacity for coordination and effective response. Simply put, we were ill prepared to cope with, much less prevent, an outbreak on this scale.

We bear a collective responsibility for the thousands of lives lost to Ebola and the tens of thousands affected by the disease. And, today, thanks to institutional improvement and adaptation, we are closer to winning the fight against Ebola. Although the disease has not been contained and eradicated throughout the region, its spread has slowed; now we have to start planning our recovery, which must include strengthening the national, regional, and international systems that protect our people’s lives and futures.

We, the presidents of the three affected countries, met in Conakry, Guinea, in February, joined by Côte d’Ivoire, to adopt a common strategy to end the epidemic and guide post-Ebola socioeconomic recovery. This meeting was followed by a donors meeting in Brussels at the beginning of March, and a meeting in Freetown, Sierra Leone, two weeks later to coordinate our technical committees. We will continue to build on these efforts in Washington, DC, at the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

We are determined to eradicate Ebola by exchanging information, sharing technical expertise, creating innovative and accessible community health systems, and intensifying public education strategies, including steps that can be shared in families, such as applied water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) standards. Only then can investment by the private sector – the engine of employment and stable livelihoods – begin to recover.

The spread of the Ebola virus has been facilitated by our countries’ shared history and culture, which has enabled the disease to cross borders easily and move quickly from remote rural areas to urban centers. Unfortunately, the epidemic forced us to close some of our borders, preventing access to relatives and care.

We want our infrastructure, health policies, and economic strengths to benefit people across borders through links – community support systems and development corridors – that encourage collaboration and job creation. And we ask our international partners to support a common economic stimulus plan, with an emphasis on practical solutions that can enhance growth and increase employment.

Four elements are essential to our recovery effort. The first component is the creation of resilient public health systems, which requires trained community health workers in order to expand coverage in rural areas. It also requires nationwide water and sanitation programs and well-equipped centers for the control of infectious diseases in each country.

Second, we need to focus on infrastructure, particularly roads and electricity and telecommunication networks. We ask the African Development Bank to take the initiative in creating an infrastructure fund, an extension of the Mano River Initiative, launched in 2013, with the objective of furthering regional integration. And we ask our partners to recognize that programs originally planned on a ten-year time horizon, must be implemented urgently.

Third, we need to support economic recovery by encouraging confidence within the private sector, which has been hit by rising costs in the region. Specifically, the region would benefit from grants to local entrepreneurs, concessional financing and loans to foreign investors, and budgetary support from the government.

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Finally, in line with the recommendation of the Commission for Africa, the United Nations, and the African Union, we ask for a total cancellation of our foreign debt. This would allow us to recover the fiscal flexibility we need to enable us to co-finance the reconstruction of our health systems.

We urge our international partners to support our economic recovery in the same spirit of cooperation, and with the same sense of urgency, that helped us fight the Ebola virus. Together, we can build health care systems, infrastructure, and regional institutions that will be stronger than before the start of the epidemic. Together, we can build a lasting legacy of health and progress for our peoples.