Speaking recently on Ebola and the world of commerce, Dr Anuschka Coovadia, head of healthcare at KPMG in South Africa, affirmed that businesses have a fundamental role to play in the fight against the disease.At an event hosted recently by KPMG in conjunction with the Mail and Guardian Africa, the Graça Machel Trust, AGH Capital and the Southern Africa Trust, Dr Coovadia said, “Business is able to build trust, reduce risk and increase investment. We are able to drive awareness, raise funding, work in communities using our own internal capacity and infrastructure to assist with training and research.”
Keynote speaker at the event, Graça Machel, said that the haemorrhagic disease which has claimed nearly 5,500 lives in West Africa has exposed the worst of the weaknesses in institutions on the African continent. Machel criticised African governments for their slow response to the epidemic. She said, “We don’t seem to have learnt lessons from the HIV pandemic. We had hundreds of thousands of Africans dying of AIDS before we took the relevant measures to understand that HIV / AIDS can be prevented and those affected can live a long and productive life. It took us a long time to learn that families would be affected. Now with the Ebola outbreak, it is as if those lessons did not register.”
Machel acknowledged that the African Union (AU) had taken a leadership role in bringing business and governments together at a recent meeting in Addis Ababa to discuss Africa’s response to the outbreak. She congratulated African entrepreneurs who had heeded the call to contribute to the fight against Ebola saying that, to date, Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote has contributed about US$800,000 and South Africa’s Patrice Motsepe has pledged US$1 million. She lauded the ‘Unite Against Ebola’ fund which had raised US$45 million, with additional commitments made by other global companies but lamented that this intervention had come far too late for the victims of the disease.
“It took us a lot of time to wake up and say that these deaths are unacceptable,” she said.
A belief in African ability
However, Machel is adamant that although it poses a significant challenge, Ebola, like HIV, can be conquered. She believes that Africa has the ability to contain the virus, and cited Uganda as a country that has successfully suppressed the virus when it was first detected in that country in 2011. She admonished African states for looking to Western governments for assistance instead of seeking help from fellow Africans, stating that this was an opportunity for Africans to begin to recognise and value the knowledge and expertise that is available on the continent.
In agreement with Machel and other panellists at the session, Dr Coovadia said that although the economic impact of Ebola had been scaled down, a loss of US$3 billion on the continent is still significant. She commented, “What is especially significant is not that this loss isn’t being driven by the provision of medical services, but it is being driven by the feeling that it is a problem of the poor. However, this is not just an African problem, it impacts the whole world. More than ever, Africa is married to the world and the world is married to Africa. Six of the ten fastest growing economies are now in Africa and most businesses are looking to Africa for growth. Africa has the largest working population in the world and there is increased private sector activity on the continent.”
Dr Charles Okeahalam CEO of AGH Capital, added, “The private sector must play a role, but it must be in the context of a public private partnership. We need the Ebola discussion to be at the forefront of the business agenda and we as Africans should not wait for the solution to come to us. We must drive the fight to stem the disease ourselves.”
Coovadia explained, then, that many companies continued to conduct business on the continent, but were doing so with an awareness of the new operating environment. She noted, “We are seeing companies taking measures to limit exposure for their workers and employing technology more effectively to run their businesses. Though Ebola poses a serious threat to the continent, it also poses an opportunity. The interventions that will come out of dealing with this crisis will lead to a better future for millions of people on our continent.”