October 15, 2019

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Africa’s Image and the Ebola Epidemic

During the African Leaders Summit in August, Brookings convened the panel discussion, “Africa’s Image and U.S. Perceptions in the 21st Century,” that included leading journalists and Africanists such as Helene Cooper of The New York Times, William Wallis of the Financial Times, Amadou Mahtar Ba of AllAfrica Global Media, John Prendergast of the Enough Campaign and the recording artist Akon.

One of the key messages coming from the panel was that Africa has many narratives. Given that there are 54 countries on the continent and more than 1 billion people, this would seem obvious.

However, it was Helene Cooper who observed that events in Africa seemed to be reflected through an American prism, perhaps more than any other region.

For example, when it was reported in late July that Americans Dr. Kent Brantly of Samaritan’s Purse and nurse Nancy Writebol of SIM had contracted Ebola, U.S. media focused almost exclusively on their welfare and their subsequent treatment at Emory University in Atlanta. Little was initially reported about the huge number of deaths already occurring in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the impact the death toll was having on those countries, and how the government and international community were even responding.

When Thomas Eric Duncan contracted Ebola, travelled to the United States from Liberia, was admitted to Texas Presbyterian Hospital and subsequently died, U.S. media was in blanket coverage mode. The U.S. response became a prominent issue in the U.S. election cycle even though the number of people with Ebola in the U.S. is less than 10.

In an October 6, Washington Post article, Paul Farhi poses the question about why Ebola became a “media superstar” when other diseases, such as the common flu, are deadlier and have more far-reaching consequences.

I would pose another question: Is it too late to prevent the Ebola story from becoming the defining image of Africa in the U.S. media, and the American mindset, for the foreseeable future?

In the run up to the Africa Leaders Summit, an alternative African narrative was taking hold. This narrative was defined by the fact that seven of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa, that a middle class of more than 300 million people has emerged on the continent and that democratic governance is increasingly widespread. Africa increasingly is being perceived as a continent of opportunity.

In fact, President Obama’s historic invitation to 50 leaders from Africa was a reflection of the fact that the continent had become one of the most dynamic and fastest growing regions in the world, and the U.S. had a new interest in stronger ties, especially in the areas of trade and investment.

Unfortunately, this vision of Africa was lost in the coverage of the Ebola outbreak during the summit. According to Africa Growth Initiative analysis, 36 percent of headlines from U.S. news outlets the week of the summit included the keyword “Ebola” whereas only 14 percent referred to the summit. In the days following the summit, tweets about Africa that excluded the keyword “Ebola” dwindled to less than 100,000 per day while tweets mentioning Ebola skyrocketed to over 500,000 per day. As a consequence of the Ebola epidemic, the American media has resurrected an image of Africa as a continent in crisis that dates to the 1970s and 1980s.

Even positive stories from the continent relating to Ebola receive scant attention. For example, Patrick Sawyer landed in Lagos, Nigeria on July 20 from Liberia and was already symptomatic, contagious and dying. Yet Nigeria prevented a further outbreak of Ebola by tracking down every person who might have had contact with Sawyer, and conducted 18,500 face-to-face interviews to assess potential symptoms. On October 20, the World Health Organization declared Nigeria Ebola free and applauded its “world-class epidemiological detective work.” This is a very different response to the tragic experience of Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas.

So what are the consequences of characterizing Africa’s 1 billion people by the circumstances of the 20 million who live in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea?

For one, it further isolates the U.S. from Africa at a time when there is strong competition from China, the European Union and other nations for the African market.

Second, it creates the sense that managing the Ebola crisis in the three African countries is the only issue with which the U.S. is concerned on the continent. While the Obama administration has mounted an appropriately strong response to the epidemic, the administration cannot lose sight of its other initiatives across Africa, such as Power Africa, Feed the Future, the Young African Leaders Initiative and, perhaps most immediate, the reauthorization of the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

With two years remaining, there is much that the administration can accomplish in Africa, especially in following up on the commitments made during the African Leaders Summit.

Finally, we need to begin preparing for a post-Ebola response and broad-scale economic recovery of the three most impacted countries. As President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia told The New York Times on October 30, “Right now, all the international attention is on Ebola … if we don’t focus on our economy, we will not be able to sustain” the attention on the economy once the epidemic winds down.

It is impossible to predict what the “new normal” will ultimately be in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. However, this is much is certain: Africa is a diverse, fast-changing and increasingly important continent. It would be a mistake to have our perception of the region defined, and limited, by the tragedy occurring in three countries.

© 2019 Covington & Burling LLP

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About this Author

Witney Schneidman, Regulatory attorney, Covington
Senior Adviser

Witney Schneidman has nearly 40 years of experience working across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Drawing on his experience in the State Department, the World Bank, think tanks and his own consulting practice, Dr. Schneidman, a non-lawyer, has advised energy, technology, consumer and health companies, among others, on projects in more than 30 African countries. He has also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs, and on the Africa advisory committees in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and at the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

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