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The Plague Year: The UN’s Ebola Response

23 Aug

Last week at UN Headquarters, a meeting was convened under the auspices of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) that represented some of the best (if not most time sensitive) of UN capacities in action.

This gathering was actually a joint session focused on three of the countries on the PBC agenda – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.   The agenda was not security sector reform or gender violence, but rather the implications of the recent outbreak of Ebola that has immobilized national services and caused hand wringing and finger pointing both within the affected societies and in the West.

Readers of this blog have surely followed the unfolding drama in the media.   The security lapses along and across common borders;   the quarantine of thousands of persons in makeshift camps; the courageous response of medical workers operating at great personal risk and without adequate diagnostic equipment and treatment options; and perhaps most shockingly the lack of vaccines to prevent further infection.

The discussion was led by Ambassador Lucas of Luxembourg, chair of the Guinea configuration, and featured briefings from the three country teams, all of whom competently outlined the threats and responses that offered some glimmer of hope for recovery amidst daunting social and medical challenges.

The responses of PBC members to the country teams’ testimony blended gratitude, sadness and pragmatism. Some states expressed concern that some Peacebuilding Funds might be diverted away from mandated tasks towards Ebola response, while others questioned how a plague of this magnitude could remain unaddressed by medical science for so long.   Others wondered about the often slow pace of response.  Ambassador Lucas herself noted that there was likely a time when concerted action could have stemmed the Ebola menace, but she also wondered aloud about current prospects for effective threat response.

Almost all understood the implications for pandemics and other plagues on the very fabric of community life.   In all three countries, each one a relatively recent survivor of other forms of horrific violence, the shock and fear caused by Ebola are proving to be debilitating yet again. But this time there is an added twist – the worry that those with whom you have lived and grown up may be the very persons to infect you with a grave disease for which there is no apparent cure.  These are the worries that can strip away social cohesion – motivating a deeper form of quarantine than even the one imposed by officials.

This for us is more than a sad and cautionary tale.  It is a dry run for what might become a more common occurrence – bacterial and viral infections that have become immune to our potent medicines or are transmitted beyond the reach – or attentiveness — of our otherwise sophisticated medical technologies and research facilities.

Ebola is the latest sign of an evolving constellation of threats to stable and peaceful societies emanating from the viruses in our bodies more than the hatred in our minds.   We applaud efforts by the PBC to understand and address the security implications of Ebola; but we also urge the PBC to do what it can to help prepare more rapid responses to what is almost certain to be a next, deadly, medical emergency.

Dr. Robert Zuber