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Regional – West Africa – International moves against still-spreading Ebola

Western governments and international organisations have started taking real action against the unrelenting spread of the Ebola virus. On Thursday, September 18, the United Nations (UN) Security Council adopted a US-sponsored resolution in terms of which it declared Ebola a “threat to international peace and security.” This empowers the Council to make certain demands on UN member states, which it has done: it has called on states to lift the “general travel and border restrictions” which they have imposed in response to the epidemic. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced that the UN was setting up a special mission to combat the outbreak, to be called the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), which will have five priorities: “stopping the outbreak, treating the infected, ensuring essential services, preserving stability and preventing further outbreaks.” Also on Thursday, France’s President François Hollande announced that France would set up a military hospital in the worst-affected part of Guinea “in the coming days.” On Tuesday, September 16, US President Barack Obama had announced a “major increase” in his governments’ response to the outbreak, promising to deploy US troops to West Africa to build health facilities and to assist with the logistics of the health response. The US will also give sanitary equipment to help curb the spread of the virus.

Also on Thursday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a situation report on the spread of the epidemic, in which the organisation said the “upward epidemic trend continues” in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, owing largely to the “continued increase” in the number of cases reported from the Liberian capital Monrovia. The organisation says it hopes to “bend the curve” in the spread of the epidemic within three months – that is, it reckons that it will take three months just to slow the spread of the disease, and that would be a best-case scenario. According to the report, as of September 14 the total number of probable, confirmed and suspected cases was 5,335 in the current outbreak, and 2,622 people had died from the virus. The weekly case figures showed a drop in Guinea in the previous two weeks, but that slight improvement was more than cancelled out by the extremely rapid spread of infections in Liberia: over 400 new cases per week (confirmed and probable) in the previous two weeks. Almost all of those cases came from Monrovia, which may mean that many other cases in more remote areas are going unrecorded. In Sierra Leone, too, the virus continues to spread at an alarming rate, with 584 confirmed new cases in the previous three weeks. The report further contains the depressing news that 151 healthcare workers have lost their lives in the outbreak, more than half of them in Liberia. An unrelated outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has killed 40 people out of 71 infected.

WHY DO WE CARE? The measures announced by France, the US and the UN are of course welcome, but they would have made a far bigger difference two months ago. Still, the resources that the US in particular is set to deploy to Monrovia, currently by far the worst-affected place, will make a welcome difference. As the virus continues to spread, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is impossible to venture even a vague guess as to how high the human and economic costs will end up being. It is also clear that the estimates made so far have not been pessimistic enough. For now, one bit of good news is that the virus has not yet spread to a fourth country in a lasting way (an outbreak in Nigeria was contained). But as the number of infections grows, it also becomes more likely that another infected person will travel to Nigeria or the Ivory Coast and start an outbreak in one of those countries. And the UN’s call on countries to lift travel restrictions, while it will make the response to the disease more effective, will unfortunately tend to make geographical spread more likely.

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