World grossly ill-prepared to ‘douse wildfire’ sparked by Ebola, West African leaders tell UN

29 September 2014

Leaders from Sierra Leone and Liberia, the two countries, along with Guinea at the frontlines of the battle against the unprecedented Ebola outbreak in West Africa, urged the General Assembly today ensure the United Nations mounted a stronger, better coordinated response “to end this grave threat to our collective survival.”

In his remarks, Foreign Minister Samaur W. Kamara of Sierra Leone, said the Ebola outbreak in West Africa “is the very first example of a world challenged by globally weak infrastructure and human capital public health and surveillance systems for dealing with faster occurrences of animal to human, and human to human transmissions of highly contagious diseases,” all made possible by quicker transportation, increasing urbanization and dense networks of people moving between rural and urban areas, and across borders.

“We have been slow to meet this new challenge because no one recognized this confluence of trends could emerge with such virulence in West Africa,” he said, adding that West Africa’s international partners were slow to recognize the threat for what it was, and when recognition did come, it came with a “spontaneous reaction of fear and panic that led to the closure of borders and imposition of travel restrictions to and from Sierra Leone and our sub-region.”

Mr. Kamara said that when the virus hit, Sierra Leone was “doing many things right”; following a devastating decade-long civil war with significant progress in health care and literacy and rebuilding infrastructure. “Based on the knowledge we had, based on the advice we were given by our international partners, we mobilized to meet this unfamiliar threat. But the staff, equipment, medicines and systems we had were inadequate and this slowed our effective response.”

While months on, the international community has “finally come around” to see the outbreak as a global challenge, the response must be scaled up and better coordinated. Sierra Leone had taken extraordinary measures, including declaring a state of emergency and shutting down the country for three days to bolster the country’s hard-hit health care system and increase awareness about the signs and symptoms of the disease in all households, the socio-economic disruptions were already being felt.

Further, Mr. Kamara said, “our people live in fear and cannot understand the nature of a disease that claims a life and prevents family members from burying their loved ones.” While saluting the decision to launch the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), he said defeating Ebola and other such outbreaks would require improving capacities for quicker response. In Sierra Leone, this would require faster deployment of staff, medicines and equipment at all levels.

“This is a fight for all of us and we must prove that humanity will be equal to this new challenge to our collective existence,” he declared, adding that it is “high time this Assembly makes its voice heard on flight bans and cancellations to our countries.”

Liberian Foreign Minister Augustie Kpehe Ngafuan warned of the overall consequences of Ebola, beyond its immediate health impact. “It is a total crisis – it is an economic crisis, a social crisis, and a potential political and security crisis. Indeed its deleterious impact has been very wide and very deep,” he said, causing a 3.4 per cent slide in economic growth and a potential 12 per cent economic decline in 2015.


Liberian Foreign Minister Augustie Kpehe Ngafuan addresses the general Assembly. UN Photo/Kim Haughton

“To douse the wildfire caused by Ebola, we have been left with inadequate resources, time and personnel to attend to other routine illnesses like malaria, typhoid fever and measles, thereby causing many more tangential deaths,” he added.

“An increasing number of pregnant women are dying in the process of bringing forth life. In short, our public health system, which totally collapsed during years of conflict and was being gradually rebuilt, has relapsed under the weight of the deadly virus,” he added, referring to the civil war that ended over 10 years ago.

“As destructive as the Liberian Civil War was, at least our people knew the warring factions and the frontlines. With Ebola, the enemy is more insidious and there are no clear-cut frontlines because someone's child, someone's husband, someone's workmate could actually be the enemy and the frontline at the same time. This difficult feature of the disease, coupled with a host of other challenges, occasioned its rapid spread.”

He thanked the UN and the international community for their help in combating the epidemic, declaring that despite the gloom and worst case scenarios that 1.4 million lives could be lost in the region by January, Liberia is not sinking into defeatism.

“Instead, President (Ellen Johnson) Sirleaf and the resilient people of Liberia feel that the Ebola epidemic has presented us with a one-option, multiple-choice test; and that option is to fight back! And we are fighting back.”


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