After months of ravaging West Africa, history’s worst ever Ebola outbreak may finally be drawing to a close. In the summer and early fall, hospitals scrambled to keep up with the demand for beds as hundreds of new cases were identified each week. Now that those have slowed to a trickle compared to the flood of the epidemic’s peak, the beleaguered countries are starting to turn over new leaves. The transition from emergency to business-as-usual will require the coordination of local and international efforts.
While the international response to Ebola was spread across several West African republics, U.S. attention has been particularly focused on Liberia. The preferential treatment has been interpreted by many as a tacit acknowledgment of long-running American complicity in the two nations’ tragic shared history. Initially settled by free blacks from the U.S., Liberia developed to be a deeply unequal society defined by tension between the descendants of African-American settlers and Liberian natives. The latter suffered under a century of autocratic rule at the hands of the former, until Americo-Liberian regime was overthrown. The result of the ouster was fourteen years of one of the bloodiest and genocidal civil wars of modern times. Although the conflict ended over a decade ago, the toll it took on Liberian society and institutions exacerbated the outbreak severely.
As such, Liberia received the bulk of American aid — as well as U.S. security troops — aimed at combating the devastating spread of Ebola in mid-2014. But promising signs in the Ebola battle have sparked such optimism that as of last week, the troops have begun to withdraw. And earlier this week, Liberia passed yet another milestone on its path to recovery: the nation’s schools reopened, welcoming back long-idle students after six months of preemptive quarantine instituted to keep infection rates down.
While resuming the school year is a positive step welcomed by the international community, analysts have stressed the necessity of caution for Liberia’s transition back to normal life. Until new cases are eradicated completely, one unforeseen case can still spread quickly — especially in a classroom setting. Given these high stakes, organizations like Unicef have collaborated with the Liberian Ministry of Education to develop proper procedures to proactively identify any new cases of Ebola among pupils. Such measures will include taking every child’s temperature at the start of the school day, and requiring hand-washing before entering the building. Aid workers have worked alongside school administrators to ward off the sort of fatigue that could lead to botched protocol.
Despite these measures, many parents remain hesitant about sending their kids back to school; attendance the first week back was reportedly low. According to Unicef, the January reopening of Guinean schools started slowly as well — now, a month later, they’re operating at 85% of pre-Ebola rates.
Beyond immediate safety risks, many experts harbor at least some anxiety about Liberia’s future. Even after the eventual eradication of Ebola, challenges await the young civil society institutions that have been ransacked by the epidemic. Remember, Liberia’s peaceful democracy is still new — its atrocious civil war has been over for less time than it lasted.
An estimated 250,000 Liberians died in the conflict, but many survivors say that Ebola has been even more detrimental to the social fabric than years of war were. This is partially due to the nature of the disease itself. One of Ebola’s greatest cruelties was the way it drove people away from one another, and demonized public space — one wonders if there is a greater democratic roadblock than people afraid to gather together. Stigma and fear have also proven difficult to shake, despite NGO efforts to reintegrate Ebola survivors back into civilian life. Finally, some observers fear the efficacy of aid organizations could be hampered by the fact that Liberians continue to associate them with the epidemic. Some conspiracy theorists reportedly believe that aid workers brought Ebola into the country in the first place.
But other causes for concern over Liberia’s post-Ebola reconstruction relate to more practical issues. The underdeveloped governance and public health structures that contributed significantly to Ebola’s rise still exist, and the epidemic has left the country’s economy in tatters. In an op-ed for The Guardian, Liberia’s Minister of Finance Amara Konneh wrote that without good civil society investments, the epidemic will unleash a “generation of poverty.”
And yet there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful about Liberia’s outlook as well. Considering the mass-scale of its recent historical setbacks, most analysts believe the West African nation emerged in much better shape than expected. The country’s relatively swift transition from civil war to free elections was successful enough to be used as a case study for those studying post-conflict state-building. Such experience bodes well for its rebuilding process. If Liberia inherited precarious institutions from its harrowing past, so too did it inherit resilience.