Public health in Africa beyond Ebola

by Simukai Chigudu 0

The news that Liberia is now free of the scourge of Ebola could not be any more welcome. 

Indeed the country has been thrown into a celebratory frenzy, as Liberians have taken to the streets with signs and posters bearing messages like ‘We will always overcome’ and ‘We are the winner’. This jubilation is rightly earned. One can only look on with admiration at the courage, hard work, hope and perseverance that allowed this nation to emerge from one of the most frightening and severe health crises in contemporary history.

And yet, Liberia’s neighbours, Sierra Leone and Guinea, continue to battle with this deadly virus and, crucially, all three countries are faced with the stark challenge of building their health systems to be better prepared to cope with public health catastrophes in the future.

The World Health Organization, over the last decade or so, has been advocating ever more strongly for ‘health systems strengthening’ as a fundamental priority for poor countries, particularly those with enduring histories of underdevelopment, weak infrastructure and limited human resource capacity. Ebola has demonstrated in the most dramatic terms possible how poorly equipped health systems capitulate in the face of a major epidemic.

In addition to its assault on health and wellbeing, the outbreak has also had many salient socio-political consequences within West Africa and far beyond. On the one hand, the epidemic has heightened fears of deterritorialised agents of destruction, transported by their African vectors, to cause death and disease in Europe and America thus resulting in the aggressive patrolling of borders and injunctions to send military troops to quell the outbreak.

More compassionately perhaps, the sense of a globalised outbreak has triggered an international response that has been both inspiring (volunteers and humanitarians from all around the world travelling to West Africa) and nauseating (Band-Aid’s charity pop).

In this frame, a complicated picture of globalisation arises, one that compels us – as medical professionals, policymakers, journalists, scholars and citizens – to think deeply about how we understand the politics and geography of health.

The Ebola outbreak and its aftermath is a challenge to discuss a range of issues critically, particularly the relative importance of biological versus social factors in public health challenges; the nature of health inequities within and across countries; the criteria for allocating scarce health resources; and even the definition of what health actually means. 

This year’s Oxford Africa Conference – themed A Continent on the Move: People, Politics and Business Across Borders – provides a forum for the interrogation of the issues and challenges raised above.

On a panel dealing specifically with public health in Africa beyond Ebola, the conference brings together thinkers and practitioners from diverse arenas such as medicine, civil society, healthcare entrepreneurship, and digital innovation to tackle these vexing issues.

Chaired by the philosopher of global health and social justice, Sridhar Venkatapuram, the panel discussion will engage with the historical, normative and practical questions around improving health in Africa. Ebola has proven beyond equivocation the need for technical and political approaches to health crises.

In so doing, it has reminded us of Frantz Fanon’s prescient warning from years ago, ‘Depoliticised public health is not a real discipline in the service of man’.

*Simukai Chigudu is a DPhil candidate in International Development and Vice-President of the Oxford University Africa Society