The real numbers behind the ebola crisis in West Africa

The Liberian information minister has acknowledged that the ebola outbreak ravaging his country is “overtaxing” the public health system; MSF drops the pretenses and claims the system is “falling apart” (BBC). There are two ways to interpret the current epidemic in the Mano Region: one could argue, as the minister does, that the scale of the crisis is due to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea being on the “frontline” of the disease; or one could argue, taking a step back, that it is the weakness of the Liberian state which has allowed this outbreak to become a full-blown epidemic (the same claim could be made about the inability of Nigeria‘s state elite to educate and protect its citizens in the North). There are many figures being thrown around in the current crisis: but what are the numbers that really matter?

fographic on ebola deaths
BBC infographic on ebola deaths

This is the main number making headlines: 1,000 dead and 1,800 infected in West Africa. But here’s a few alternative figures that might come in handy for the assessment of this particular crisis (and the ones to come):

This goes beyond health
This goes beyond health

I wrote an entire Ph.D. dissertation on how the real challenge facing post-conflict Sierra Leone and Liberia had to do with the systematic subversion of state institutions by grand political capture and everyday bureaucratic corruption. The fact that donors were unwilling or unable to deal with the politics of reform did little to spur much-needed institutional change and consolidation.

Seeing the current ebola crisis exclusively as a health sector issue would only continue the pattern of ineffective aid to ineffective states. Young Liberians today need more than medicines: they need a better state.