HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsEbola outbreak – Is climate change to blame?

Ebola outbreak – Is climate change to blame?

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On Saturday, a Zimbabwean national who works in South Africa and was travelling to Sierra Leone made up the third case while a second Nigerian national was also admitted to a hospital with Ebola-like symptoms.

WISDOM MDZUNGAIRI VIEWPOINT

The Zimbabwean was flying Kenya Airways, which indicated immediately after that the airline will suspend flights to Liberia’s Monrovia and Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The airline said all passengers booked on the suspended flights would get a full refund. To show that the outbreak is no small matter, the airline has been ferrying medical staff, supplies and equipment for management of the outbreak in some West African states.

What is critical in this case is that Kenya Airways has many flights into Zimbabwe almost daily sometimes three times, and this heightens the probability of the outbreak in the country.

The suspension of the flights will start at midnight tomorrow. What is more is that the airline took the decision on the advice of its country’s Health ministry, which is keen to prevent the importation of a case of Ebola into that country. And this means that from tomorrow Kenya will not allow passengers from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, according to reports.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Friday also indicated that the death toll from the virus in West Africa had risen to 1 145.

I am no health specialist, scientist or government official. I was born of parents who were farmers although they worked (they are now pensioners). As retirees they have in recent years been trying to raise crops on their small plot in the face of extreme weather.

Hence, the climate conversation in this country has changed and should change to include all areas health, business and anything one may think of. When I started working to combat global warming many years ago, it was a topic largely for environmentalists and scientists. Now farmers, business leaders, public health experts, religious groups, government officials and farmers have joined in.

After reams of scientific evidence have appeared in the news and countless extreme weather events have landed in local communities, the issue has gone mainstream. The vast majority of Zimbabweans are no longer debating climate change but they are looking for solutions.They now view climate change as a serious problem and would support government’s strategies to reduce global warming. The Ebola outbreak is one such issue that raises emotions – Zimbabwe’s preparedness or lack thereof.

In essence, people’s support runs deep and wide hence the need to come up with cross cutting mitigatory measures that could help Zimbabwe moderate effects of global warming. Given the national conversation on climate change has shifted, it is important to ask ourselves soul searching questions vis-à-vis the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.

Is global warming linked to the Ebola outbreak? If it is key to its spread, how prepared is Zimbabwe?

It is important to interrogate this issue. For according to some scientists, Ebola outbreaks may become more frequent because of climate change. But the scientists are uncertain why the current epidemic has proved more serious — both in number of cases and number of deaths — than its predecessors.

Some have pointed to meteorological data to show that previous outbreaks typically occur in clusters after sudden weather changes. What is clear though is that some scientists believe climate change—and the subsequent increase in extreme weather — could be a factor behind in the virus’s rise!

According to the WHO, the rate of global warming has accelerated further over the last 50 years, with temperatures rising by over 0,18 degrees Celsius per decade. The prevailing scientific argument is that this has caused rainfall patterns to change and extreme weather to become more intense and frequent.

In the case of West Africa, global warming may also be bringing humans into closer contact with virus-carrying bats, as increasing and more severe dry spells hit agricultural yields and drive humans into the forest for food.

What is important is that prior to this Ebola epidemic, the WHO had already warned that contagious diseases appeared to be on the increase — and that global warming could be a factor. Why should countries such as Zimbabwe put up measures in the circumstances?

Where else could Ebola go? Zimbabweans are working everywhere around the globe and West Africa is one region they are concentrated – working for various international organisations. This then must put Zimbabwe on high alert because of the increasing prevalence of international travel, which could also make the spread of diseases like Ebola more likely.

Isn’t it time for the country to focus more on “health security”? Indeed, government must put its structures on high alert to combat climate change at the ports of entry.

Of importance is the fact that one of the Ebola hit countries – Sierra Leone has, in recent years, seen significant deforestation and other man-made environmental changes which, some argue, could be one cause of the recent Ebola outbreak.

Although it is unclear whether these beliefs are driven by good science, what is true is that these Ebola hit countries have faced unequivocal environmental changes in recent years and so is Zimbabwe. As a result climate change has resulted in seasonal droughts, strong winds, thunderstorms, landslides, heat waves, floods, and changed rainfall patterns.

That, though, is not exactly good news for local communities. Because though modern society’s impact on the environment may not result in an explosion in Ebola, it seems that it will almost certainly drive up rates of these other, far more dreaded diseases.

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