Dr. Mosoka Fallah remembers all too well what an epidemic can do to his country. Not just the disease itself, but the knock-on implications: hysteria, mob violence, international pariah status, economic ruin and, worst of all, the thousands of lives lost to treatable illnesses because of a collapsed medical system.
As an infectious-disease expert at Liberia’s ministry of health during the 2014-2016 West African Ebola outbreak, Fallah witnessed first-hand the impact of the epidemic. And he is determined to never let it happen again. So when Nigeria’s health ministry announced, on February 28, that an Italian businessman in the country had tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus, making it the first sub-Saharan country in Africa to be hit by a worldwide epidemic that has already infected more than 90,000, and claimed 3117 lives, Fallah was ready.
“We had to learn the hard way,” he says grimly in a telephone call with TIME, referring to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the three West African countries that bore the brunt of that Ebola epidemic. “Ebola knocked us over, but now we know not to underestimate anything; we know how important it is to prepare.”
On March 2, Senegal’s health minister announced that a French resident returning from a skiing holiday in Europe, had tested positive for the virus, bringing the sub-Saharan total to two. (Morocco, Algeria and Egypt have eight cases, for a total of ten in Africa). “It’s starting to sink in that it is real,” says Nickie Sene, who is overseeing Catholic Relief Services’ health programming in Senegal, as Head of Programs for the region. “We are all preparing for the inevitable entry of the virus into west Africa.”
Fallah, as the head of Liberia’s National Public Health Institute, which was established in Ebola’s wake, is now spearheading the country’s coronavirus preparation strategy. Liberia is one of eight African countries that have suffered an Ebola outbreak (five others successfully contained cases related to those outbreaks) and, informed by what went wrong in the past, health officials in these countries are implementing well-informed strategies that could be a model for the rest of the continent.
Once news broke about the emergence of a mysterious new viral infection spreading around Chinese transport hubs in January, it didn’t take long for Fallah to understand the risks to his own country. Chinese companies are a large presence across Africa, and he calculated that at least 309 Chinese citizens had recently arrived in Liberia from China, and another 80 Liberians. He shared his findings with public health officials from neighboring countries, Sierra Leone and Guinea, on a newly created WhatsApp group. He says they now exchange messages multiple times a day, exchanging views on airport screening (essential), flight bans (unadvised) and quarantine protocols (complicated.)