Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Aviatic quarantine by international and regional airlines

An aviatic quarantine has almost isolated the ebola-stricken countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Only two airlines (SN Brussels and Royal Air Maroc) are flying in and out Liberia and, one to and from Sierra Leone (Royal Air Maroc). Guinea is still served by at least four airlines although Emirates stopped its operations to Conakry in early August cutting off a direct route to the Middle East and Asia.

For all its self-righteous rhetoric the international community has not only failed to deliver adequate aid and support but also demonstrated that in times of crises, it is each nation state for its own. Thousands succumb to ebola while exposing the poor medical and general infrastructure of the said countries; effective support is barely trickling in. The clearest action since the crisis reached horrifying peaks, unfortunately, has been ostracism of the very countries suffering from the epidemic by cutting off air routes. 


The Togo-based Asky and the Nigerian Arik Air were the first airlines to suspend flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone end of July although they continued flights to Guinea.  Patrick Sawyer, a US citizen who worked for Liberia’s Ministry of Finance, had traveled to Nigeria via Asky to attend a conference and shortly afterwards died in Lagos. Asky was suspended by Nigeria's civil aviation authorities for bringing the first Ebola case to Lagos. Nigeria has registered 8 deaths from ebola to date while none have surfaced in Togo.


On 2 August, Emirates became the first major international airline to stop flying over ebola concerns: it suspended its regular operations to Guinea.

British Airways, which flies to Liberia and Sierra Leone, followed the action a few days later, on 5 August, by first suspending operations until 31 August but then extended the suspension until end of 2014. The Foreign and Commonwealth Offices announced BA’s decision.

Air France was forced to halt its operations to Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, after staff unions signed a petition to stop flights and on the French Government’s request to the ebola-affected region although flights continued to Guinea and Nigeria. The airline made its decision end of August.

Kenya Airways, Air CΓ΄te d'Ivoire, Gambia Bird and Senegal Airlines also suspended their flights.

Kenya Airways suspended its flights to Monrovia, Liberia’s capital and Freetown at the end of July but in encouragingly has announced that flights to Monrovia will resume on the 24th of October. One can only hope that the airline will indeed stick to this plan.          

Air Ivoire also announced it would resume flights around the same time although a confirmed purchase ticket for the author for the 16th from Accra to Monrovia was cancelled and is going to be refunded.  

On 11 August, Ivory Coast banned all carriers from carrying passengers from the ebola-affected countries. Ivory Coast also proceeded to close its land borders with Guinea and Liberia. Seaports were closed off to vessels from the three countries but the restrictions were lifted; vessels originating from the ebola-afflicted countries must wait for 21 days before they can call at Abidjan Port.

On 10 August, Nigeria’s civil aviation authority suspended Gambia Bird’s flights into Nigeria citing its safety and precautionary measures against ebola as unsatisfactory. Mid August, Gambia Bird suspended its operations to Monrovia and Freetown, firstly until the 31st and later until 28 September. The latest news is, however, that Gambia Bird will start bi-weekly flights from Gatwick Airport in the UK to Freetown on 17 October.  Flights to Monrovia are still suspended.
The Gambia has banned travelers from Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. No ebola case has surfaced in Gambia.
Patrick Sawyer’s death prompted fears of the spread of the virus by air passengers and precipitated restrictive measures by governments and airlines in the region and internationally. Each government, though, has enacted different actions to make it feel safer. For instance, some flying routes to Guinea are still open but scrapped by others. Decisions have been taken individually although the official statements indicate that they are consulting WHO and reviewing the situation. But the WHO as well as IATA have advised that while ebola is contagious, it is not airborne and it is improbable that a person would contract it while flying. Moreover, it is unlikely that someone sick from the disease would ever get on a plane. It is difficult to understand the logic of this aviatic quarantine except that it is based on fear.
More recently, the first ebola case in the US has prompted fear-provoking headlines such as “Ebola in America” implying that ebola will ravage the United States of America much the same way it has devastated the impoverished countries of post-conflict Liberia and Sierra Leone.  One can only hope that this will not trigger further actions to isolate Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea and, consolidate the erroneous idea that suspension of flights will help solve the problem and continue to delay real action.
Ivory Coast has successfully managed to prevent a single ebola case although it shares a porous border with its neighbours, Guinea and Sierra Leone. It has indeed enacted border closures and flight restrictions too but its prevention efforts started in March which more than anything else helped to keep Ivory  Coast ebola free.

A well coordinated effort to standardise screening measures at airports, border points and sea ports together with SOPs on flights would be preferred than the complete suspension of flights. But it seems neither regional nor international back up plans exist to manage the nightmarish scenario that we are now witnessing in West Africa, and instead every country has acted on its own. The cancellation of flights regionally and internationally demonstrates the shocking lack of an international system to deal with the situation nor is the system catching up.

 So in lieu of that, we turn to ideas of solidarity and goodwill. These are also absent.  African solidarity is but a hollow idea as we see neighbours closing their doors to the plight and suffering of their poorer brothers and sisters. Neither ECOWAS nor the AU have effectively responded with constructive solutions to help deal with this transnational crisis instead of ostracising the ebola-affected countries. The arrival of more than 150 Cuban doctors in Sierra Leone is instead inspiring and uplifting, I am sure, to Sierra Leoneons, and we wish for many more similar concrete measures are taken. The substantial military and medical assistance plan outlined by Obama is yet to take off in Liberia.

That West Africans have to wait for the good will of their neighours and richer countries and societies is a pity. Over the years, billions of dollars of aid has poured into this part of Africa in their name to eradicate poverty, to fight malaria or, my favourite, to build peace. Careers in poverty and development have been made and lauded. Even now, the suffering of West Africans by a viral hemorrhagic fever is feeding an outsider narrative of Africa. International media is thriving on the gruesome details of this deadly disease. Sound bites and killer deadlines are piling up on TV channels, photos, blogs and websites.  

Ebola is ravaging the populations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, three of the poorest countries in the world with barely-functioning and barely-equipped healthcare systems. This is the time for solidarity, not turning away. How does the international community expect international support to come to Liberia if there is no way to get there? MSF says its doctors need to be rotated every four weeks. With limited flight options, how does this situation help? With concrete support barely trickling in at snail-speed, this aviatic quarantine is just an insult on injury. Most people succumbing to this disease are poor folks, not the type to get on an intercontinental flight. But perhaps we have answered our own question, the international community is going to do very little to help and it is simply not a pressing priority, the way, for example, defeating ISIS is.

The aviatic quarantine needs to be lifted. Airlines and governments must work together to standardise measures. If this is not done fast enough and continues to linger, it will be a shameful episode in history where entire countries were isolated as they fought with one of the deadliest diseases in modern history.

Author:

I am a Pakistani woman living and working in Liberia since 2003, firstly in the aid industry and as an IT company owner/manager since the last five years. I studied Violence, Conflict and Development at SOAS at a post grad level. 

I've been in Pakistan for a few months on holiday but postponed my return when the ebola crisis seemed to peak in July when the epidemic hit Monrovia. Because I have an infant, I was encouraged by friends to hold off my return. 

With the crisis not abating but also the knowledge that so far, only poorest folks are succumbing to the disease I am ready to go back after making a calculated decision along with my husband who also works in the same company as me. But with the aviatic quarantine, travel to and from Liberia has become an expensive nightmare. I normally travel to Pakistan via Accra taking the Emirates flight to Islamabad with a brief stop over in Dubai.

As already mentioned in the article, Air Ivoire announced it had re-started its operations to Monrovia and a ticket was purchased from Accra to Monrovia for the 16th of October but a few days later, that flight was cancelled and will apparently be refunded. Now, I might depend on the Kenya Airways flight on the 24th but after Air Ivoire’s cancellation, it is uncertain whether Kenya Airways will indeed resume operations. I will have to change my booking with Emirates, pay a date change fee, and wait for the 24th. Failing that, I would have to consider re-routing my ticket altogether via Royal Air Maroc or SN Brussels, which would mean dishing out more cash.

NOTE: I wrote this last year while I was caught out during the ebola crisis, while in Pakistan. I tried to get it published but no luck. I decided to at least publish it on my blog today! 

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