Ivorian refugees returning from Liberia were blocked from returning to their homeland by the Ivory Coast government on Tuesday because of fears they could spread the Ebola virus currently raging across West Africa. This comes as the outbreak’s death toll since February hits 603, with at least 68 deaths reported in the last week alone, according to the World Health Organization.
A United Nations official has condemned the Ivory Coast’s actions, saying that they violate domestic and international law. According to the U.N., Ivorian officials refused to allow a convoy of around 400 refugees to re-enter the country even after the organization offered to carry out medical screenings. The group had fled to Liberia following the eruption of violence around Ivory Coast’s 2010-2011 election. Bruno Kone, a spokesman for the government, defended the decision, urging observers to “show some understanding” as the region faces “the greatest pandemic” it has seen for a long time.
Regional governments have struggled to coordinate their response to the deadly epidemic, which has seen confirmed cases in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Organizations like Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have been stretched to their limits in attempting to respond to the outbreak amid piecemeal efforts at stemming the tide by governmental officials.
Impeding these efforts is the climate of suspicion within affected communities. As the deadliest Ebola epidemic on record, governments have had to face considerable fear among their populations. MSF has reported extensively on the suspicion with which locals in affected communities have regarded health workers, with violence even breaking out in some cases. The situation has reached crisis-levels as scores of patients shun treatment over fears that medicine and hospitalization actually propagate the illness.
If the preponderance of such suspicions was not problematic enough, the continuing lack of coordination by regional governments, as displayed in the Ivory Coast’s unilateral decision Tuesday, constitutes a serious impediment to routing the outbreak. Despite the epidemic’s rapid resurgence, the WHO has remained adamant on the subject of travel restrictions, continuing to recommend that the affected countries keep their borders open. For the Ivory Coast to flout this recommendation is both unsurprising and yet another alarming indicator of the serious systemic barriers which continue to stand in the way of an effective regional strategy to addressing the epidemic.