Washing off Ebola

… the international image of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea has been severely tarnished by Ebola, but it can redeemed.  

Google Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea and the next thing that will come right beside them is ebola. It’s like South Africa, Botswana and Namibia in the late nineties when HIV/AIDS was virtually the next word after the mention of their names. Now, although the HIV virus is not so far gone from these southern African countries, the word is no longer the quick follow up that it used to be in the past. For Botswana words like stable democracy and economic development come up top, and Ubuntu always stayed next to South Africa before workers strikes, government controversies and power failures kicked it out.

So how did the Southern African nations clean off their HIV stereotype? For South Africa, part of the answer was the World Cup it hosted in 2010. The event showed the country can pull of global events, develop infrastructure of international standard and play host to as many visitors as are ready to come. More than that, it also showed the unity–Ubuntu as they love to call it–, resilience and strong will of the society to rise from challenges. “This World Cup has helped with an image makeover and a rebranding of the country and the capacity of the country,” Danny Jordaan, the chief executive of tournament’s organising committee said in 2010. “South Africans are very proud of what we have done here, it has been a fantastic event, from an economic and a unity perspective,” Lee-Anne Bac, director at Grant Thornton Strategic Solutions in Johannesburg told the BBC at the tail-end of the event. “There has also been a reputational boost for South Africa that can help bring inward investment and visitors.”

Botswana did not have a World Cup at their disposal, so they focused on showing off socio-political stability, government effectiveness, and economic growth and development. With a democracy that is rated the freest in Africa, a government that is among the thirty least corrupt in the world, and with one of the fastest  growing economies, virtually everyone looks at Botswana as the model for Africa. The country also virtually replaced the negative perception of its HIV epidemic status with an admirable record of having one of Africa’s most-advanced treatment programmes. “Botswana has moved on a path of good economic management and outstanding political governance,” Obama said in 2009. “And as a consequence, you have seen extraordinary improvements in living standards that really are an envy for much of the rest of the continent.”

Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea badly need the ebola tag off as well. Although the deadly virus is almost totally out of their countries, save for a few re-emerged cases, its stigma still beclouds their international perception. This negative perception reduces the countries’ attractiveness for foreign investment and thus inhibits the socio-economic recovery that they desperately need. A few efforts have sprung up to counter the Ebola stereotype, like Jo Dunlop’s Freetown Fashpack, a website that showcases the fashion side of Sierra Leone. “In a country so commonly associated with civil war and blood diamonds and most recently Ebola, I felt inspired to show a different side to Sierra Leone and reveal an unlikely fashion hotspot,” writes the Australian living in Freetown in her website.

While such efforts make a good start to changing the perception of Sierra Leone and its neighbours, removing the Ebola stigma won’t be an easy task, and more concerted and government directed efforts are needed. In the earlier mentioned southern African countries, these ones have examples to follow. They need a blend of South Africa and Botswana’s processes to push off the Ebola stigma, and they can do it. What they need is to show the world the willingness and ability to lock down the reemergence of Ebola and open up an enabling environment for the thriving of local and foreign investments. Improving governance and promoting societal development Botswana style is the first way to go, and then attract a global event, like South Africa (it doesn’t have to be the world cup), to showcase the post-ebola rebound.

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