The horrifying ebola epidemic currently running out of control in West Africa seemed a distant problem not too long ago. Voluntary organisations such as MSF and the World Health Organization had been warning for some time that it was rapidly turning from a largely healthcare problem into a social and economic catastrophe, but still it was happening to “other people”.
It was only when western voluntary workers became infected that it began to really penetrate our consciousness. Then a British nurse became infected – and fortunately survived – and the issue really hit home.
This weekend I received a call from a national TV news channel wanting to discuss whether British nurses should be able to travel to West Africa to help deal with the crisis when we have a nursing shortage in the UK. The conversation prompted me to check how UK nurse numbers compare with those of West Africa; I was surprised to find that we’re ranked 47th worldwide, with 54 nurses per 10,000 people – way behind Finland, which tops the table at 222, and runner up Ireland with 185.
But if you really want to talk about nursing shortages, look at the countries affected by ebola: the best resourced appears to be Sierra Leone, with four nurses per 10,000, while Liberia has just one.
The developed world has benefited from centuries of exploiting Africa – it would be nice if this crisis could galvanise us to give something back. That means we should celebrate the fact that over 160 NHS professionals have already volunteered to go out there during the epidemic, but once it’s over we should not simply walk away. The west must help these countries to prevent further outbreaks of ebola and improve general health by helping them to increase the numbers of nurses and educate their populations on how to protect themselves.
After all, it’s not just a moral responsibility – international travel means that if we don’t, ebola could one day be not just a catastrophe for people far away. It could land on our own doorstep.