What does the Ebola crisis say about Senegal?

Over the last few weeks I have overheard a number of fellow PCVs calling home to reassure family and friends they are safe and the Ebola virus has not been detected in Senegal. Their families have some reason to be worried about Ebola – over 1,700 people have been infected and over 930 have died from the virus, mostly in Guinea (Conakry), Sierra Leone and Liberia, since December of last year.[1] Isolated cases have been recorded in Nigeria. West Africa (not America) is at risk. The crisis has been exacerbated by the lack of resources, and poor governance in the affected countries. The Senegalese government on the other hand, is relatively more competent in matters of governance and public safety, and enjoys more legitimacy from its people.

The disease probably transferred to humans and claimed its first victims in January of 2014, before the first cases were reported in southern Guinea in February.[2] When I asked my host dad Ibou how the virus broke out, he told me “people in the forests of Guinea and Sierra Leone don’t have civilization. They eat bats.” Despite his comment on their lack of “civilization,” he was most probably correct about the source. Bats are known to be reservoirs of Ebola, and bush meat is a much-appreciated source of protein in many rural areas.[3]

After 59 deaths in the southeast, Guinea finally officially announced the presence of an Ebola outbreak on March 25th. A few days later the virus was detected Conakry, the capitol of 2 million people. The virus then hopped the border to Liberia. While people continued to be infected, international relief organizations set up shop and the world believed the virus would be quickly stopped. As late as June Senegal PCVs got an email saying “most public health authorities would not agree with the MSF statement” that the situation was “out of control.”

A nice graphic of a Ebola victim vomiting blood

Part of the public education campaign had graphics of Ebola victims vomiting blood and other symptoms.

But the virus continued to spread, and in May new hotspots in the north and west of Guinea killed another 50 people. On the 26th of May Sierra Leone announced its first deaths from Ebola. The first half of June saw a 60% increase in deaths with new outbreak hotspots being announced across the three countries. In late July the outbreak reached Freetown, and a Liberian national died (in quarantine) in Lagos, Nigeria. The virus became a regional issue. Victims fortunate enough to have an American or European passport have been flown to state of the art facilities to receive care.

This outbreak of Ebola has been so devastating partly due to the lack of an efficient and competent response by the government and public institutions of the affected countries. Recently in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, a woman with Ebola was allowed to go leave the hospital and die at home, surrounded by her family who carried her highly infectious body to the grave. In Liberia bodies have been buried in mass graves near where people are living – and some were not even buried completely In the last week these governments have issued sweeping measures (closing borders, deploying the army, all day curfews, mandatory death registration) to stop the spread of the virus – hopefully they will be efficiently carried out.

While affected states have been late at best, incompetent at worst, to mobilize state resource to combat the spread of Ebola, the Senegalese government has shown itself more effective than its southern neighbors. A few days after Conakry officially reported the outbreak in March Senegal closed border its land border with Guinea. This had significant repercussions for traders, which I saw manifested in a poorly stocked Kolda market.[4] Yet while the border was officially closed, many continued to cross the border informally (including some friends and myself who accidentally crossed on a camping trip in the Kedougou region – we only realized later when we put our GPS coordinates into Google Earth). In May the border was reopened, and remains so today. While its fair to question the effect of closing the border, the act itself shows the seriousness with which the Senegalese government approached the initial outbreak.

Another positive step I’ve seen taken is a public education campaign. After the initial outbreak I saw television spots about how to spot Ebola and safety measures. In the last week the ministry of health has aired a new more in depth announcement before the evening news. Posters have gone up in public places. People in the city take the virus pretty seriously. People have spoken about how scary it is because of how fast it kills, how easy it is to spread, and the lack of a remedy. The big caveat here is I am having these conversations in the city. These messages have not gotten to rural areas, where many cannot read, and televisions are few and far between. Similarly to the border issues, while the government in Dakar has taken positive steps towards prevention, it has a harder time making its voice heard in rural villages.

That being said, compared to its neighbors the Senegalese state enjoys a high degree of legitimacy from the people. Around Kolda people generally respect public institutions like hospitals, the firefighters and the police/gendarme. This is related to the stability Senegal has maintained since independence. Guinea has suffered a series of military coups, and Liberia and Sierra Leone spent the 1990’s amidst horrendous civil wars. Instability makes it hard to build well functioning health systems. It also makes it even harder for many people living in rural areas to trust their government. Rumors of the government starting Ebola to postpone elections has kept people away from health officials in parts of Guinea.

The Ebola crisis in West Africa has been greatly exacerbated by a lack of efficient and competent government response. Yet if Ebola were to reach Senegal, I believe the competency of, and legitimacy enjoyed, by the Senegalese government would spare the country from the horrors experienced further south.


The completly open (and beautiful) border between Senegal and Guinea

[1] The New York Times recently reported that researchers suspect a two year old boy who died on December 6th in Guéckédou, Guinea, was Patient Zero.

[2] Ebola shows symptoms between 2 to 21 days after infection.

[3] But not all. In Dar es Salaam in the Kedougou region Jahanke speakers teach their children to immediately see any bats because according to them they bring illness. Also cooking the meat will kill the virus, so its suspected to pass from the handling of raw meat.

[4] Specifically Guinea honey and all manner of delicious fruits and vegetables. The market in Diaobe, which is attended by traders from five countries, saw significantly less activity during this time as well.


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