Tag Archives: ebola

Dancing with the Stars:   The UN Engages Healers, Chroniclers and Keepers of the Peace, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 May

There is an apocryphal story that I have seen variations of in several places wherein children are asked to define a “hero.”  One child apparently responds something to the effect that a “hero is a celebrity who does something real.”

The fact that such a distinction rings as true for many of us as it does says a lot about our modern culture – one defined more by seductive branding than sacrificial substance.

We all need “heroes” in the sense of people willing to respond to crises and inspire our better selves.  What “celebrity” offers instead is distraction from the requirements of personal growth, giving us permission to evade the responsibility and willingness to become what this fractured world needs us all to be, skills and commitments that the UN recognizes it could use in greater measure as well.

Indeed, towards the middle and end of this past week, the UN lifted up three sets of ‘stars,’ people whose names few would recognize but without whose service what DSG Eliasson recently referred to as a “somber global landscape” would be that much more difficult to navigate.

Eliasson’s remarks were part of a Thursday ECOSOC event on “partnerships,” specifically health-related collaborations.  The focus of course was on the still-potent Ebola scare that ravaged three West African countries and produced extraordinary stories of courageous care.  Former US president Clinton also spoke and helped convey the need for a new health care model that incorporates sustained planning for both prevention and recovery.  As had been the case previously during various UN events from the Peacebuilding Commission to the Security Council, the ECOSOC panels looked to both the future and the past, forward to a world with fewer pandemic risks, and back to reflect on those inspiring medical workers who helped us survive the current crisis.

A day earlier, the Security Council under Lithuania’s presidency convened a debate on the protection of journalists in conflict zones.   Here again, the carnage in these zones is often debilitating but the willingness of professional journalists to risk personal safety to bring us images and narratives that can help us prevent further tragedy and ensure sound policy is quite a remarkable human achievement.  There were many welcome suggestions made in the Council as to how to better protect journalists in the field, and even concerns voiced by the Netherlands, South Africa and others that unchecked levels of violence might begin to sap the willingness of journalists to get the stories we so badly need to hear.  But all of this was within an honoring framework recognizing, as Pakistan put it, that media freedom is an “enabling right” on which our other freedoms are based.

And on Friday, the UN organized another annual ceremony to honor fallen peacekeepers, this one even more moving and respectful than the last.   Men and women in full military dress representing all of the UN’s current peacekeeping operations joined with the Secretary General and many senior diplomats to lay a wreath and verbally honor the service of peacekeepers who have risked much and largely performed admirably amidst increasingly complex mandates and unpredictable security environments.

Despite the different contexts, these health workers, journalists and peacekeepers have all chosen paths of greater resistance.  For those of us for whom subway delays and cranky co-workers are among our worst daily setbacks, what do we owe people who willingly take risks that we desperately need them to take but that most of the rest of us would choose to sit out?

The answer varies.  For the health care professionals who risked (and in some cases sacrificed) their own lives to answer the Ebola challenge, the answer seems clear – what former President Clinton referred to as a more serious investment in robust and reliable health infrastructure, but also in ‘rapid response’ mechanisms for pandemic outbreaks and in more reliable resiliency capacity to vulnerable states fearing health-related shocks – in essence honoring the courage by preventing the reoccurrence.

For journalists, while ending impunity for violence against media professionals was rightly encouraged by virtually all Council speakers, it is clear that many journalists will continue to take professional risks so long as their findings are taken seriously by the policy community.   While both are essential, the journalists I have met who work in conflict zones would rather be heeded than protected. They are willing to take risks if the stories they uncover can help save communities from further abuse – asking the “next question” in the hope that policymakers responsible for violence prevention will do likewise.

As for the peacekeepers, there seemed to be an undercurrent suggesting that receiving honor is less important than maintaining integrity and effectiveness.   As the UN wrestles with what seems to be a widening sex abuse scandal in the CAR, I recall earlier conversations with my own military veteran family members who took completely seriously violations of the military code that created disrespect for the uniform and endangered lives.  As peacekeeping operations evolve in logistical complexity in situations where peacekeeper neutrality is giving way to more robust projections of protective force, the last thing UN peacekeepers in the field need – and the last thing the rest of us should tolerate — is festering scandal.

There are times when all of us need to step back and remember the many people whose sometimes life-threatening labors are indispensable to our own futures.   But more than remembrance, there are things we can do, roles we can play, even sacrifices we can make, to respect their service and dignify their craft.  Being in the presence of heroism should inspire more from each of us. Indeed, our admiring ‘dance’ around such heroism is rather suspect if we fail to accept a commensurate responsibility for the heroic – or at least the bold – as we move through the world. To rhetorically admire acts of bravery while ignoring their specific challenges is at best unwise. So too is any avoidance of a commensurate responsibility to balance personal courage in areas such as health, journalism and peacekeeping with bold and effective global policy – something real inspired by something real.

And of course we must all do more to avoid the many pitfalls of celebrity substitutes that always linger in our overly-branded world, substitutes which even our children recognize can reduce specific acts of genuine heroism to mere caricatures of themselves.

Taking temperature, taking stock: Sustaining global efforts to combat endemic (and emerging) diseases

4 Oct

Editor’s note:  This post is written by Karin Perro who is currently finishing up graduate study at John Jay College of the City University of New York.   During her limited time in the UN Security Council, Karin witnessed the Council’s efforts to address the peace and security implications of the Ebola outbreak.  As she notes, however, Ebola is not the only health-related threat to peace and security, or for that matter to the fulfillment of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

Recently, the halls and chambers of the UN have resonated with horror over the growing specter of Ebola in West Africa. And rightly so – the current epidemic poses an urgent health threat to global human security, with the potential to undermine the already fragile economic and democratic vitality of afflicted states. While immediate, heightened efforts to staunch the deadly outbreak are imperative, we must be mindful that the current crisis not overshadow the need for continued vigilance in combating extant endemic diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and cholera. Such diseases are largely curable with early detection and treatment, yet account for an alarming number of global mortalities, with some estimates attributing over five million deaths annually to endemic pathogens. The transmission of polio virus is on the rise after two decades of near eradication. The Center for Disease Control warns that the polio virus could conceivably paralyzed more than 200,000 children worldwide annually over the next decade if coordinated curtailment measures are not initiated now.

The combination of an insidious persistence of endemic diseases – and the potential for more Ebola-like emerging disease outbreaks – has the potential to undermine the objectives articulated in the Post 2015-Millennium Development Goals. Health is a fundamental human right, and crucial to global security. It needs to be prioritized.

New challenges continue to exacerbate the underlying malaise already stifling international health security. This month’s briefing to the UN by Every Woman, Ever Child (EWEC) noted impressive progress in reducing maternal and infant mortality, with Dr Robert Orr of the UN Executive Office of the Secretary General announcing that the lives of 17 thousand children are saved daily as a direct result of EWEC initiatives. While laudable, such goal attainments might ironically lead to an increase in those populations most susceptible to endemic diseases, and a further taxing of already resource-scarce national health plans. In addition, the disturbing proliferation of armed insurgencies worldwide are creating unrelenting burdens in delivering health care and essential medicines to those suffering in conflict zones.

Access to affordable, essential drugs and vaccines in developing countries is fundamental in combating endemic diseases. Greater political commitment and funding is needed to address the inadequate access to such drugs by undeveloped countries. In addition, many organized criminal networks have redirected their enterprises from the illicit drug trade to marketing in counterfeit drugs that often prove more lucrative. Current anti-counterfeiting policy measures have proven inadequate in stemming the flow of pharmaceutical counterfeits, particularly to developing nations where treatments based on fake essential drugs, such as anti-malarials, imperil the lives of millions in Africa, South East Asia, and parts of Latin America.

As we approach the final adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and initiate their implementation, it is incumbent on all stakeholders to take stock of the current overall global health “temperature” and reconfirm their commitment to their stated goals as they relate to global health security. The focus of the SDGs on eradicating poverty and promoting universal education is inextricably intertwined with the physical health of targeted populations. Poverty and endemic disease are tandem barriers to the overall socio-economic health of developing states, while the success of SDG educational goals are predicated on the physical well being of the communities they aim to serve.

Without adequate support for the prevention, treatment, and control of endemic diseases, malaria-stricken children will be incapable of attending SDG-inspired education programs and initiatives. Women debilitated by tuberculosis will be prevented from participating in community or regional governance in a sustainable and substantive manner. Adults weakened from cholera will be denied the ability to provide economically for their families through newly developed, SDG-inspired employment opportunities. And emergent diseases, conceivably affecting large swaths of regional populations, will only compound the severe obstacles already facing global health objectives.

For the moment, we must divert our energies to suppressing the dire Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The Secretary General’s formation of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) is a positive step in addressing the current heath crisis. However, with unabated world deforestation and climate shocks, deadly new pathogens will certainly continue to emerge. We need to take proactive steps now to avoid dilatory, reactive attempts at squelching pathogenic wildfires in future. To that end, it is hoped that the recently developed Crisis Response Mechanism of the United Nations will provide an effective framework for predicting and then responding to current and future health crises. At the same time, the Global Health and Security Agenda (GHSA) calls for accelerated progress in combating biological threats, including control and prevention measures, through a five-year implementation plan. But timely and intensified responses are critical. As stated by the Chair of GHSA, “a biological threat anywhere is a biological threat everywhere” and “the consequences of not acting are unfathomable”.  ‘Health keeping’ now rivals the importance of peace keeping in the struggle for global security.

Synergy across sectors (a considerable UN refrain) will be essential in achieving not only SDG health initiatives, but also rapid response strategies to avert future epidemics. Triangular partnerships will need to be forged between governments, the private sector, and civil society. Uneasy alliances will be required linking corporate sponsors and health NGOs. Moving forward, corporate partners must demonstrate transparency in achieving local health objectives consistent with national health priorities. They will need to ensure that their efforts are not predicated on profit bottom lines, and must be open to accountability if their credibility as health actors is to be maintained. ‘Might’ in this instance rarely equates with ‘right’.

Likewise, NGOs must refrain from appropriating bureaucratic, big business practices that can stifle flexibility towards the achievement of urgent health response.  The inclusion of all stakeholders must be real and substantive, not sidelined as merely rhetorical participation. Perhaps most importantly, political will is paramount in avoiding what might be seen as ‘anemic’ responses to global health challenges. Eradicating the ‘ills of the world’, as articulated within the SDGs, could well be undermined by more literal, health-related ills if threats from both endemic and potentially emerging diseases remain inadequately addressed by all relevant stakeholders.

Karin Perro, GAPW Intern




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