March 30, 2020

What we can learn from the Ebola outbreak

Ebola virus disease killed over 11,000 people Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone from 2014-16

Learning from experiences in Liberia that can help us in the times of coronavirus: over prepare, don’t over react.

In March 2014, six years ago, West Africans were waking up to the reality of one of the most deadly virus outbreaks in recent times. The Ebola virus disease went on to kill up to 90 percent of the people it infected in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. A fluid-transmitted disease, it caused the deaths of over 11,000 people before being brought under control over two years later.

At the time of writing, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has already killed more than double that number globally and many countries are yet to feel its full, disastrous effects. But what can we learn from previous pandemics that can help us in adapting to the new situation the coronavirus puts us in?

Richard van Hoolwerff, SPARK’s former Liberia Country Manager for six years, looks back on what lessons Ebola can teach us – how to keep teams safe, how to adapt programmes to support the outbreak and how heavily-populated African countries can hope to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Business trainings taking place before the Ebola outbreak the Business Startup Centre Monrovia © 2013, SPARK

“Ebola taught me a few lessons that can help in dealing with the current coronavirus outbreak”, explains Van Hoolwerff. For him, the differences between the two pandemics are as striking as the parallels. “I think a key difference between Ebola and the coronavirus is the ‘locus of control’. 

In 2014, the government of Liberia, a country still trying to get back on its feet after decades of civil war, had little control over the Ebola outbreak. A lot of the preventative measures taken in 2014 were not put in place by officials, but by companies, industries and people’s own initiatives. Airlines stopped flights, large organisations ceased operations and humanitarian agencies went in to set up medical facilities”.

I am sure this coherent, government-led response to COVID-19 is due to Liberia’s previous experience with Ebola – former Liberia Country Manager, SPARK

As an international NGO, with five national and international staff working from the SPARK hub in Monrovia, Van Hoolwerff had some difficult decisions to make. “We quickly realised that our team, as well as the staff of our local partner organisations, needed to stay at home for some time. 


Staff outside the Business Startup Centre Monrovia © 2013, SPARK

We reached out to our donors, who were incredibly flexible and compassionate, and they agreed that some of our programme budgets could be reallocated during the outbreak to ensure that our teams could stay safe and, where possible, keep working in a responsible way”.

To start with, SPARK provided staff of local partner organisations with a three month cash advance on their salaries. This simple measure was budget neutral but provided an important safety net for local employees. It ensured that in the case of any future cash shortages at the bank or even bank closures, employees would have cash on hand. In addition, packages with basic food items and cleaning supplies were made for all employees allowing them to remain safely in their homes for as long as possible.

SPARK continues to be one of Liberia’s leading small and medium sized enterprise (SME) development organisations, providing business plan competitions, acceleration programmes and finance to entrepreneurs. However, at the time of the Ebola outbreak, all programmes needed to be paused. “The risk was too great for participants and our partner organisations. So we needed a way to communicate updates about the programme as quickly and efficiently as possible”, explains Van Hoolwerff.

Jacob Israel Moses, tailor who adapted his company to produce medical garments during Ebola © 2014, SPARK
Jacob Israel Moses, tailor who adapted his company to produce medical garments during Ebola © 2014, SPARK
During the Ebola crisis, James turned his cement business into a food supply for local residents © 2014, SPARK

In order to mitigate unnecessary barriers to communication, SPARK supplied all local implementing partner organisations and entrepreneurs with enough phone credit to make and receive calls for several months. Again, a relatively simple, cost-effective measure that enabled weekly contact that made everyone feel supported, safe and ensured “no one was left behind”, explains Van Hoolwerff. 

After taking steps to protect staff, local partners and boost communication channels with beneficiaries, SPARK began to look for ways to be part of the solution. “As an SME development organisation, we were extremely well positioned to ease the economic impact of Ebola. We quickly earmarked funding and planned support for specific industries under strain or providing essential services during the outbreak”, explains Van Hoolwerff.

SPARK contacted UNOCHA who was coordinating the Ebola response. The UN agency oversaw the contributions many organisations were making all over West Africa and by connecting to the network, the SPARK team built fruitful relationships with other, similar organisations that went on to outlive the Ebola crisis.

SPARK’s IGNITE Fund set up the Ebola Loan programme, which invested in three companies within three different industries that were particularly affected: pharmacies, construction and garment production. “Because so many people were requesting medication in an attempt not to get sick from other common afflictions, such as typhoid and malaria, the pharmacies in Liberia were struggling to cope”, says Van Hoolwerff. 

“Similarly, new emergency medical facilities needed to be built and nurse’s uniforms, patient gowns and other medical clothing was in short supply. Therefore, we supported a pharmacy, construction company and garment factory with training, coaching and access to finance to boost their operations”.

Samuel (second from left) pictured outside his pharmacy, Samcol, which was supported during Ebola © 2014, SPARK

For Van Hoolwerff, one of the most striking parallels between Ebola and coronavirus outbreaks has been the initial lax, nonchalant reactions to the virus during the early stages of its spread. “This [attitude] is followed by exponential growth of the virus. Everyday the death toll and number of reported cases rises”. 

However, he says, “Liberia has had an incredibly mature response to the global coronavirus outbreak so far. After the first case was recorded, the government immediately established health controls at all major entries to the country and flights from countries with 200+ cases were banned. Schools are closed and a rigorous programme of contact tracing has been initiated. I am sure this coherent, government-led response is due to Liberia’s previous experience with Ebola”.

While many of Africa’s countries brace themselves for the inevitable soaring infections, SPARK is learning from experiences in Liberia. In fragile regions, where institutions or governments are less equipped to cope and people lack access to health services, it is organisations like SPARK that can bridge some of the gaps created, including overstretched public services, food shortages and economic downturns.

Making a stark comparison, Van Hoolwerff says, “outbreaks in developed economies lead to panic buying which means people might not have access to toilet paper for a few days, whereas outbreaks in fragile countries mean instant shortages of essential necessities and people lack access to fuel, energy, medicines and food. Supply chains are really affected”.