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Ebola: Why such indifference to West Africa?

Ebola and human life - indifference to West Africa? 

Is the global response to Ebola in West Africa indifference? Whatever it is, the response of governments has been abysmal with the single exception of Cuba whose government has sent medical assistance disproportionately large to its size and resources.

While the US and China – the two largest economies – have also sent help, it is miniscule in relation to the severity of the Ebola problem. It is distressing that the governments of rich countries in Europe, apart from a belated surge by Britain, have done little. Already Ebola has killed 3,341 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. That’s only the official figure. Not counted are many who could not get to doctors or whose families hid them through fear that “quarantine” was a euphemism for a place to die. In these three countries alone, there are 6,553 probable, confirmed and suspected cases.

The Director of Médecins Sans Frontières, Joanne Liu, at the UN Security Council in early September, condemned the international response as “lethally inadequate”.

The US and other G7 nations are quick to respond to human rights violations the world over. They are right to do so, particularly when innocent people are murdered in the thousands by tyrannical regimes. But these wealthy nations should respond just as quickly when thousands of people are being killed by disease.

Speaking in the UN General Assembly in September, about containing Ebola, US President Obama said, almost prophetically: “We need a broader effort to stop a disease that could kill hundreds of thousands, inflict horrific suffering, destabilize economies, and move rapidly across borders. It’s easy to see this as a distant problem -- until it is not”.

Ebola is fast becoming a problem that is far from distant. A team of scientists at Northeastern University in Boston have claimed that, by the end of October, the virus could spread across the world reaching China, Britain and France, among other countries. The researchers put the chance of Ebola reaching France by November as high as 75%.

Europe has already registered the first person known to have contracted the disease outside of West Africa. Teresa Romero, a nurse in Spain, is now in quarantine along with her husband and three others with whom she was in close contact. She had treated two Spanish missionaries who had contracted the virus in West Africa. They have since died. Also dying this week was Thomas Eric Duncan from Liberia. He died in the US, having been the first person diagnosed with the virus within the US although it had caught him in West Africa.

The US and countries in Europe have moved swiftly to keep the disease from their shores and to contain it once it is within their boundaries, even though they say that the risk is “low”. Already screening has begun at airports. There will be more. For sure, airlines will be instructed to curtail traffic to and from West African countries. There will be a re-introduction of the kind of border vigilance that was seen after the 9/11 atrocities in the US. There will also be mobilization of hospitals and huge investment in medical equipment, medical personnel, training and mass education about the disease. No one could possibly quarrel with that. The protection and preservation of life is paramount among national responsibilities. But, it should be so in the international community as well. Caring about human suffering goes beyond borders. The lives of people in West Africa are as valuable as lives in the west coast of the US or Western Australia.

Why has the global response to Ebola in West Africa been so poor? If Ebola was spreading across borders in Europe and internal boundaries of the US, the response would have been more urgent and vigorous. Witness the media frenzy and the swift response of authorities to the announcement of the Spanish nurse’s infection, and the death of Thomas Duncan. The world quickly knew their names. But who knows any of the names of those killed by Ebola in West Africa?

As the problem in West Africa escalates, so too does the sum of money needed to combat it. Current UN estimates that US$1 billion is now needed will rise exponentially if governments and the private sector around the world do not contribute funds swiftly. What is urgently required is protective clothing for every worker who deals with people infected by the virus, including doctors, nurses, stretcher bearers, mortuary personnel and grave diggers. More hospital beds are also needed, more transport, more laboratory testing equipment, and, importantly, quarantine facilities that do not become breeding grounds for the spread of the virus.

According to a recent report, the British capital, London, alone is home to 72 billionaires, whose individual net worth is more than the entire economy of Liberia. If these high-worth persons around the world and their governments were to demonstrate readiness to tackle Ebola in West Africa with the urgency and generosity required, they would not only stop the spread of the deadly virus, they would save lives of thousands who now face certain death.

To its credit, the British government organized a pledging conference in London on October 2 for Sierra Leone. Several governments and charitable organizations pledged money or equipment. Britain at US$200 million pledged more than twice as much as the second highest, Germany at US$86.6 million. The pledges of many other European countries were pitiful, and others weren’t even there. It is possible that countries that either made small pledges, or absented themselves, have pledged to other efforts in the UN system. We must hope so. It also has to be hoped that the pledges will actually be delivered – so often, they are not.

If indifference was the reason for the poor response to Ebola’s deadly trek in West Africa, there can be no such unconcern now. Ebola is knocking on everyone’s door. At the UN in September, Caribbean governments called on UN agencies to increase and accelerate aid to the West African nations. But, the call of Caribbean governments would carry far greater weight if they – and their civil society - were to create a Fund to contribute to fighting Ebola in West Africa, however modest it may be.

Every country – rich ones especially, but even small ones – has a duty to make a contribution not only to stopping Ebola from spreading but also to saving the lives of desperate people in West Africa.

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