The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is taking a horrific toll in human lives on a scale that is unprecedented. It is also happening in a place that makes the whole rescue process an order of magnitude more difficult. Besides trying to save those already infected, aid workers must cope with the fact that the disease moves more easily outwards than medical supplies and vaccines can be brought inwards. The gradual improvement of logistics and transport in the region over the last few decades is having a perverse effect. It is encouraging the spread of infection, but hindering measures to eliminate it. How can this be?
Compared with the situation 20 years ago, the populations of the three countries most affected – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – can now move around more freely. Roads exist where there were none before. Mobility across national borders has become far more frequent, especially as people gravitate towards the capital cities. The first identified outbreak of Ebola back in 1976 happened in a small village in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Because the village was isolated, the infection was contained and stopped. Today, the Ebola virus has literally been hitching a ride to move unhindered and unsuspected across the different countries.
In the reverse direction however, logistics have been insufficient. Scheduled flights to Ebola-stricken areas have been cancelled until further notice. Other countries sharing borders with Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have closed them in an attempt to stem the spread of Ebola, thus hampering the delivery of supplies by road. Supplies have been left waiting in warehouses for weeks. It all adds up to a real logistical headache. Many countries from other continents have now pledged or begun to supply help and resources to meet the most immediate needs. But the problem is one of infrastructure and planning too, if future catastrophic outbreaks of the disease are to be avoided.