That Ebola has become the most feared disease in the world is an understatement, fuelling such mass paranoia, it has the potential to cause considerable distress to regions, nations, cities, localities, households and individuals and potentially cause conflict. Perhaps because the disease begun in Africa, it has introduced critical conversations about African culture and fueled the racialization of the discourse, even in the most surprising arenas. Naturally, the responses to the disease have ranged from bizarre and ridiculous to heroic stories of benevolence and self-sacrifice.
The disease is leaving a footprint on all spheres of our lives at all levels and increasingly damaging livelihoods and countries. Like the scourge of HIV, it is leaving in its wake, hordes of orphans in places with virtually no formal mechanisms for relief. It has galvanised philanthropy from the usual donor countries and organisations. Yet, its fiscal impact on countries like Liberia, which recently suspended the levying and collection of taxes, has been damaging to the fortunes of affected countries. In the realm of urban planning, the disease is also exerting some influence on land uses, shared spaces and public transportation. The Ebola virus is complicating already constrained systems.
Land ownership in Africa is laden with complex relations and rules and has been a minefield for violence as urbanisation intensifies. In this context, the need for spaces to host centres for quarantining patients for treatment is especially complicated, especially given the stigma associated with the disease. In many African countries, land is owned by tribes, clans, families and individuals. The state’s powers of eminent domain are compromised by a history of government’s incomplete payments for expropriated land. Given this history, who is going to give up their land so quarantine centres can be sited there?
The fatality of Ebola has another ramification for land use – adequacy of burial sites. So far, the death toll in the affected regions in West Africa is at 4,900 people and counting. If the growth in the incidence of Ebola infections is not curtailed, and if the availability of vaccines and treatment drugs remain as critically limited as they are today, there is no telling what effect the ensuing fatalities may have on burial practices. Given the elaborate traditional practices of dealing with dead bodies, cremation is very uncommon in Africa and may not be culturally acceptable. One can only wonder what will be available or done.
The other aspect of urban life that needs considering in light of the Ebola outbreak, is public transportation. Particularly important to consider are the famed tro-tros (Ghana), okadas (Nigeria) pen-pens (Liberia), retrofitted small cargo trucks, minivans, and motorbikes, that have other local names, commonly used as informal public transportation vehicles. These means of public transportation in urban areas are sometimes romanticised by tourists and academics alike because of their antiquated but practical utility. However, the reality of Ebola and its mode of transmission through contact will affect the use of these modes of transportation, overwhelmingly affecting the lives of the urban poor. Given that these vehicular forms are known for passenger overloading among other poor conditions, the need to limit body contact may inevitably compel a reduction in the overcrowding of these means of transport. In as much as this reduction in numbers of riders is good for reducing the potential exposure to viral transmission, it will also mean an increase in fares, further worsening transportation conditions for the urban poor. Certainly other urban transport modes such as pedestrianization and bicycles must take priority in the design of solutions for the abatement of Ebola.
In the fight against the Ebola virus, we can not take lightly the allied issues of land access and mobility. The sooner African governments and cities bring their attention to these issues, the better for all.
Post by Kwadwo Ohene Sarfoh. Photo Credit: Flickr/CDC Global.
Kwadwo Ohene Sarfoh is an international housing consultant and urban planner. He is the Director of Prime-Stat SVC Ltd and convener of the online Urban Platform of Ghana. Currently living between Ghana and Liberia, he is supporting the Liberian government in developing a national housing policy.