Ebola’s subversive claim on urban planning and social engineering

Last week was World Water Week. In Stockholm, politicians, academics and researchers, NGO functionaries and journalists took part in an assortment of plenaries, seminars, exhibitions, and pow-wows of all sorts that have come to characterise these international meets. During this particular meeting, Citi FM’s Umaru Sanda Amadu won an award for a documentary he produced titled “Water wahala – the struggle for potable in Ghana”. [listen to ‘Water wahala’ at soundcloud].

Amadu’s documentary was produced in December 2013. Yet the story resonates now more than then. Perhaps it is not an over-estimation to look at Umaru’s piece as prescient. As he picked up his award in Stockholm, his native country, Ghana, is rife with cholera infections and concomitant fatalities. A disease originating from very poor conditions of water and sanitation, cholera is rampant in virtually all the major towns and cities of the country.

In mid-August, with the incidence of infections at 3,100 and more than 40 fatalities, the situation was labelled “staggering”. Today, with more than 10,000 infections and over 80 fatalities, Ghana is facing nothing but a calamity. It is an urban calamity inching dangerously close to the worst ever recorded case of cholera, with over 14,000 infections in one outbreak in 1983.

For such a problem, that is manifestly self-inflicted, to have started in September 2013 only to now elicit assistance from the World Health Organisation certainly qualifies for the harshest opprobrium that can be mustered. When solid waste management companies stopped collecting waste six months ago because of unpaid bills it presaged the inevitability of today’s crisis. The calamity is also evident in some of the government’s responses that have featured the Vice President inspecting the clearing of mountains of garbage and issuing deadlines and the President descending into gutters to de-silt some of the filth choking the drains, much to the chagrin of commentators but albeit an executive practice not unknown of a past president. In spite of the public angst, the President felt his actions were well served.

However much we detest the inertia of public functionaries, this present situation is not only about or caused by the prevarications and inaction of the current central and local governments alone. Although these may have been the ultimate triggers, the epidemic was long in coming. Our present condition is a culmination of the longstanding aloofness of the urban population to the gravity of poor sanitation practices. The upper and middle classes’ willful obliviousness of the destination of their faecal waste cannot continue since the waste has now gained feet and is walking back to its origins, past gilded colonnades and bronze gates, with revenge. The black polythene bags that have served as receptacles of the bowel movements of the poor and underclass will no longer be persuaded to stay put in the gutters where they are usually dumped. Even the seas appear to be fed up – regurgitating the waste dumped by callous citizenry onto the beaches.

Now here’s the rub: 10,000 cholera cases and counting and where is the private sector, locally and internationally? Cocoa, gold, manganese, and now oil and gas, have brought all kinds of players into the economy. Twenty-two years of undisturbed democratic practice has paid off rich political and economic dividends in a region known for instability. One would think the rewards of these investments would be a modicum of altruism even if in reality it is an act of self-preservation. What have these private sector actors done in the aftermath of the cholera outbreak? Frankly, nothing!

And yet, following the emergence of the Ebola virus disease (EVD) elsewhere, one is observing the ubiquity of sanitizers and hand washing regimes at the entrances to the pristine lobbies of top hotels in Accra with more than friendly suggestions by gate keepers for all to undertake the ablution before entry. How does this come about? Is it the case that cholera is the poor man’s burden and therefore there is no urgency, citizen, state and profiteers alike? It is not only in Ghana that this absurdity is playing out. By August Cameroon and Nigeria were also in the throes of cholera outbreaks with Cameroon recording 1,300 infections and 65 fatalities in just two months and Nigeria experiencing even worse.   Yet, rather ironically, it took the emergence of the deadly Ebola virus disease to spur a more concerted action in public hygiene. Now there is a splurge in basic hand washing in some countries in the sub-region.

In Ghana, top end hotels without prompting are investing in hand washing facilities and enforcing their use at the entrances to the pristine hallways as a preemptive action against the spread of the Ebola disease. Not to be outdone, some hotels and offices in Nigeria are joining in this preemptive strike to stop Ebola gaining access to these elite spaces. It is worrisome that even though the cholera outbreak also requires similar responsiveness to improvement in hygiene practices, there is some reticence in public initiatives to deploy commensurate resources to meet the challenge. It beggars belief. This cocoon that our collective consciousness has crept into is harbouring even more insidious prospects. What if EVD erupts in the cholera stricken cities and towns or the converse occurs? We shudder to think of what measures will be taken in the event that the WHO is unable to help address the rapidly spreading outbreak of cholera.

We have seen how, in Liberia, the establishment of isolation measures to address EVD has led to the quarantining of whole neighbourhoods, predominantly comprising squatters, as though they were the only prospective transmission agents. On its own, this approach could be viewed as a reasonable measure. However without belittling the dangers of Ebola, it is also a persuasive argument to take account of the countless attempts to remove residents from Monrovia’s waterfront  – squatters and legitimate residents – in favour of urban regeneration plans to make the seafront an exclusive neighbourhood, and come to the conclusion that quarantining West Point bore benefits for one group of interests far exceeding what was articulated. That the many other slums in Monrovia were not targeted in this EVD treatment regime and the variety of reasons that have been assigned in the past for the eviction of communities living along the waterfront – sanitation, recreation, crime, among others – shows clearly that EVD is immersing itself into urban planning surreptitiously. That the treatment regime of EVD is not a neutral process becomes an issue for debate.

Is Ebola becoming a tool to subvert the claims of the urban poor to the preferred spaces of the elite? Is it the case of Ebola’s treatment regimes and outcome serendipitously favouring the rich? This constructed EVD treatment regime, in adopting the quarantining of an entire neighbourhood, no matter how short-lived and the efficacy of which has been emphatically criticized, may perhaps become the platform for the assertion of neoliberal spatial formalisms to the detriment of the urban poor.

Does this explain the different dynamics and urgencies in addressing EVD and cholera respectively? Does the fact that medical professionals are among the fatalities of EVD but not of cholera have any bearing on the urgency for redress for the two epidemics? The mobilisation of resources to address the emergence of these scourges must not treat cholera, running wild in the urban slums of West Africa, like the common cold. In the West African urban landscape Ebola kills, and so does cholera.

Image via European Commission on Flickr.

Joseph Ayitio is researcher and urban planner living in Accra, Ghana, and a fan of the overarching social implications of planning and urban design in African cities. He is particularly interested in expanding dialogues on African urbanism and how the hybrid governance of formality and informality produce city forms and urban economies. [email protected]

Kwadwo Ohene Sarfoh is an international housing consultant and urban planner. Currently living between Ghana and Liberia, he is supporting the government of Liberia to develop a national housing policy. He also has interest in slum upgrading and prevention, municipal infrastructure and finance, urban revitilisation, local governance and local economic development in Ghana and abroad. [email protected]

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