When I arrived at Lilongwe’s airport in the central African country of Malawi recently I had to join a queue with the other arriving passengers. This was not unusual in itself as there are often various queues to join when arriving in a new country. When I got to the front of the queue, however, an officious looking man with latex gloves held what looked like a gun to my head and squeezed a button. After a beep I was allowed to continue to the more familiar passport control line. I didn’t ask at the time what it was for but a quick internet search told me that it was an infrared thermometer gun. But why would they need to know my temperature?
It’s not uncommon when arriving in many African nations to be asked to present a yellow fever vaccination certificate but on this occasion I also had to complete a new form on the two hour flight from Nairobi. The form had some fairly morbid questions such as ‘have you recently attended any funerals or had any contact with any dead bodies?’ and ‘do you have any unexplained or unusual bleeding?’. It was not really a surprise to find that the form was an Ebola virus health screening form and although I have not been to any of the infected countries this year it felt rather odd to be filling it out. And now I know why I had the thermometer gun pointed at my head!
The current outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is believed to have begun back in December last year when a two year old child died in a village in rural Guinea. Since then the number of deaths has escalated and in recent weeks the virus have been making almost daily global headlines. With two deaths in Spain and the first transmission of the virus outside of Africa (also in Spain) and now a second nurse in the USA having being diagnosed, the West is putting a lot of money and effort into combating Ebola before the epidemic becomes a full blown global pandemic. So, whilst the world’s governments are trying their best to combat the outbreak how are global companies reacting?
The threat of Ebola specifically in the most infected countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia has forced many expatriates working in those locations to leave. A recent report by Forbes states that in Sierra Leone all ‘non-critical’ expats have been evacuated and that many companies with international managerial assistance have halted operations or are functioning at a fraction of capacity. According to ECA’s recent spot survey on dealing with pandemics, though, many companies have no policy in place for dealing with pandemics or, if they do, global mobility teams managing expats are unaware of it. With the mobile workforce numbering in the millions, globally, and with cross-border travelling increasing the potential for transmission of infectious diseases around the world, it’s clearly very important that multinationals have a policy in place, more evidently so in light of the situation in West Africa.
Recent positives are the news that both Senegal and Nigeria have been declared Ebola free. These two West African nations were the only other countries with recorded cases. The news is still grim for the others infected though. I visited Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, last year and have been to Monrovia in Liberia before and the recent scenes of bodies being dumped outside hospital gates in each city are all the more harrowing for having walked the very same pavements previously.
Fortunately my time spent on the pavements of Malawi was less upsetting. Malawi is a country that is rarely mentioned in international news. In fact the only time I can recall is when Madonna decided to adopt a Malawian child back in 2006! I can’t say that my time there was particularly eye opening and I’ll probably always remember it for being the 150th country I visited, a milestone I’m rather chuffed with.
I spent a couple of days in the capital Lilongwe and a day in Blantyre, the industrial and commercial capital. Both cities are fairly similar in that they are rather spread out and sparse even though each has a population approaching two million. Known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’, I found both places to have a laid back feel and the ever-present sight of the pink jacarandas in bloom added a colourful touch to the dusty orange pavements. Last year the IMF ranked Malawi third from bottom globally in terms of GDP per capita, and there are areas where this seems all too apparent, but the friendly locals seemed to spend most of their time smiling their way through the day. Maybe it was the jacarandas!