Five Macalester students are currently studying abroad in the West African nations of Senegal and Ghana, both of which have been affected by the rapid spread of the Ebola virus in nearby countries. While the presence of the virus has been limited to a single, carefully contained case in Senegal and is completely absent in Ghana, it has claimed nearly 2,800 lives in the neighboring countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. In response, the International Center has initiated a number of precautionary measures to monitor the developing situation and ensure the continued safety of Macalester students in West Africa.
The International Center does not have direct contact with the local authorities in either Senegal or Ghana, but the individual study abroad programs do in some cases.
“What we’re working through is the study abroad organizations that our students are studying with, and many of them do have direct connections with the local public health organizations, but [they] definitely have connections with the World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the State Department,” International Center Director Kevin Morrison said.
Morrison also receives daily updates from a listserv operated by the Overseas Securities Advisory Council, which reports on concerns ranging from health crises to civil disobedience. A member of the International Center staff provides Morrison with daily briefings on news reports related to the Ebola crisis.
The situation on the ground has not called for any serious alterations to this fall’s study abroad programs, but a Macalester student was evacuated from an independent research trip in Sierra Leone over the summer due to concerns about Ebola.
Morrison is reassured by the prudent contingency plans of the study abroad programs on-site that would go into effect if the situations in these countries escalated.
“Certainly every program that we’re working with has a backup plan right now, but everyone is moving forward as scheduled,” Morrison said. “Again, they are monitoring their sources of information and have made the decision. And they all have very good backup plans. All of them are working with excellent organizations. Should they need to be relocated or evacuated, they all work with great insurance and evacuation companies that will take care of that for them and for our students. So, that really makes it easier for us to say yes, you can go ahead, because we feel like the backup plan is executable.”
The plans currently in place would first involve potentially moving students to secondary sites within their regions of study, with further backup plans in place for their evacuation to the United States, France or other Francophone African nations.
While the International Center and the various study abroad programs pay close attention to the crisis, Macalester students currently studying on those programs have remained for the most part unaffected.
Sophie Keane ’16 is currently studying in Dakar, Senegal, and has noticed little obvious strain on the local culture.
“Occasionally, I’ll meet people who won’t reach out to shake my hand, which is typically how people greet each other in this culture, but I’m not sure if that’s because I’m obviously a foreigner, and people might think that I don’t want to shake their hand because the West is hyping the crisis so much,” Keane said via email.
“The hospital in Dakar is one of the best in the region, so people don’t seem as nervous here. There’s just maybe a bit more emphasis on hand-washing, and as I said, occasionally some hesitance in making physical contact with strangers (but even that is rare),” Keane added.
Keane’s program cancelled a visit to the Kedougo region of Senegal, which is located near the Guinean border, but her plans have been otherwise unaffected.
Senegal responded with a proactive public health response and the closing of its borders with Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Earlier in the week, the WHO announced the outbreak had been contained in Senegal. Nonetheless, the study abroad programs remain cautious. Keane’s program, the University of Oregon’s SIT, has briefed its participants on its contingency measures. They include a possible relocation to either France or the United States depending on the amount of time remaining in the program.
Active precautions and the careful monitoring of the situation has created a reassuring environment where students can progress with their study away experiences, knowing that if the worst were to occur, a response would be ready.