Margaret Chan, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), issued an unusually stark warning this week, declaring: “I have never seen a health event threaten the very survival of societies and governments in already very poor countries.
“I have never seen an infectious disease contribute so strongly to potential state failure.”
In a speech delivered on her behalf at a conference in the Philippines, she also spoke of the dangers associated with “rumors and panic spreading faster than the virus,” and cited a World Bank statistic to the effect that 90 percent of the eventual cost may be related to “irrational attempts of the public to avoid infection.”
She was referring, of course, to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Not entirely surprisingly, she appears not to have acknowledged that when Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and others, including the Guinean government, pointed to an impending disaster six months ago, the WHO declared it wasn’t an epidemic.
Peter Piot, who was a member of the Belgian research team that discovered Ebola back in 1976, recently noted in an interview with Der Spiegel that one of the reasons why the seriousness of the problem initially eluded the WHO is because its “African regional office isn’t staffed with the most capable people in the world but with political appointees”.
He added: “And the headquarters in Geneva suffered large budget cuts that had been agreed to by member states. The department for hemorrhagic fever and the one responsible for the management of epidemics were hit hard.”
It took until August for the WHO to declare Ebola a public health emergency of international concern. The first country to respond to the call to fight the disease was Cuba. It helped that, as Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said at the United Nations last month, there were already more than 4,000 Cuban health workers deployed in 32 African countries.
As Monica Mark noted in the British newspaper The Observer last Sunday, “That a nation of 11 million people, with a GDP of $6,051 per capita, is leading the effort says much of the international response.
“A brigade of 165 health workers arrived in Sierra Leone last week, the first of a batch of a total of 461. In sharp contrast, western governments have appeared more focused on stopping the epidemic at their borders than actually stemming it in West Africa.”
Cuba’s involvement isn’t unusual, mind you. It’s a constant presence in disaster zones across the globe. It provided the largest medical contingent, for instance, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and provided care for almost 40 percent of the victims. Likewise, the 2005 catastrophe in Pakistan drew a strong Cuban response, when Pervez Musharraf had the good sense to override American objections and welcome volunteers from Cuba who were willing to travel to remote areas and assist, among others, women who would not have fronted up to a male doctor.
There was African background, too, to the revelation a couple of weeks ago that back in 1976 US secretary of state Henry Kissinger drew up plans to “smash Cuba” with airstrikes. The immediate cause for his irritation was Havana’s decision to deploy troops to Angola, to help the newly independent nation fend off military attacks directed or sponsored by apartheid South Africa.
Kissinger, doddering but not yet gone, has been unwilling to respond to the documented disclosures. It’s worth noting, though, that Havana was one of the first ports of call for the freshly liberated Nelson Mandela, primarily because he wanted to personally thank Castro for Cuba’s crucial role in defeating apartheid.
It has not escaped notice, meanwhile, that the American response to the Ebola outbreak has been a troop deployment rather than medical assistance. It was initially reported that the medical personnel accompanying the troops might assist Ebola victims, but that possibility was officially nixed soon thereafter.
That’s not to say that the deployment is pointless. The field hospitals that the troops have been instructed to set up should prove most useful. However, as the UN and its various organs have pointed out, what Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea need above all are medical personnel.
All three are incredibly poor states, among the top 20 in that unfortunate category, despite being rich in resources such as diamonds and bauxite. Had the initial response to Ebola been adequately powerful and well coordinated, it is perfectly possible that the disease would have been wiped out by now, as has occurred in Nigeria. Instead, it teeters on the brink of being one of the worst pandemics in living memory.
The response from Australia, whose premier, has declared that no personnel will be rushing to West Africa reflects the broader western dilemma.
It’s not hard to understand why western leaders might be disinclined to put their nationals in harm’s way. It’s nonetheless noticeable that such considerations don’t count for much when the idea is to take lives, but the tables are suddenly turned when it comes to saving lives.
In the case of West Africa, early intervention would have undoubtedly helped not only to reduce the toll of more than 4000, but also reduced the likelihood of the disease seeping across international borders.
It’s not too late to stem the Ebola tide. As Nigeria has shown, the disease can be contained. Given the dearth of medical personnel in the worst-hit countries, it certainly does call for an international response. The Havana variant, though, is much more likely to prove effective than the ones contrived in Washington or London — let alone Canberra’s cowardice.