Interview with Peter Graaff, Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER)

Peter Jan Graaff, Acting Special Representative and Head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response. UN Photo/Loey Felipe

4 June 2015 – Peter Jan Graaff, of the Netherlands, is the Acting Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER). In his role, Mr. Graaff works closely with the Special Envoy on Ebola, Dr. David Nabarro, and with the Governments in West Africa, the region most impacted by the outbreak of the virus.

Before taking on his current assignment, Mr. Graaff served as Ebola Crisis Manager for Liberia since October 2014. He has a wealth of experience in global health issues along with international affairs, having served extensively with the World Health Organization (WHO) in a number of countries in Africa, Afghanistan and Haiti, as well as leading the Civil Affairs and Development team for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Mr. Graff spoke to the UN News Service about the trajectory of the outbreak in West Africa and the UN’s efforts to jump-start early recovery from the epidemI will not be able to forget the images of people dying in the street, the sound of sirens, things like that. And yet... it has been, and still is, a phenomenal experience.ic that has affected more than 27,000 people and killed over 11,000, mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

UN News Service: To what extent are we in the ‘last mile’ of the response in West Africa?

Peter Graaff: We are at the beginning of the last mile. So we have managed to nip it in the bud in Mali. Liberia has declared itself free of Ebola transmission…or the World Health Organization has declared Liberia Ebola-free on the 9th of May. And the overall trajectory in Sierra Leone and Guinea is still positive and downwards but with bumps on the road. So there is still a lot of work to be done.

UN News Service: The rainy season is about to arrive in West Africa. How is that going to affect the situation?

Peter Graaff: The rainy season sort of has arrived already. And it does affect operations in terms of logistics – makes moving people and goods around more difficult. Hence, the World Food Programme (WFP) has worked to preposition supplies. And also, although it doesn’t seem to have a direct effect on Ebola itself, it creates problems because it will bring other diseases like malaria that often shows similar symptoms to Ebola.

Peter Graaff, speaks about the global community's lessons learned from the Ebola response in West Africa. Credit: UNTV

So in that sense, it makes things more complicated because for the time being, people showing those symptoms have to be dealt with as if they are potentially Ebola patients and therefore have to be tested. So we will see the number of people being tested to go up quite dramatically in the next few weeks.

UN News Service: Is Ebola always going to be in West Africa? How real is the danger of it re-emerging at a later stage?

Peter Graaff: The danger is real. Ebola is a disease that can survive in the animal population. So, as long as there are animals in the forests that are carrier of the disease, there will be Ebola in the region and therefore it can come back to the human population. In fact, we are planning against, let’s say, a 50-50 chance of Ebola coming back over the next 12 to 18 months, as it has done [in the past] in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and as it has done in Uganda.

Staff of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) at an orphanage for Ebola-affected children. Photo: UNMEER/Simon Ruf

UN News Service: So you really have to guard against complacency…

Peter Graaff: Absolutely. And in fact, what the next phase in the response has to be is helping the countries put into place a solid community-based surveillance system.

UN News Service: What are the big lessons coming out this crisis for the affected nations and also for the wider international community?

Peter Graaff: Well, first of all, a problem of this magnitude, nobody can deal with it alone. So, [there is] no shame in calling on your neighbours and the larger international community to come and help you. Secondly, national leadership [is] incredibly important. I think that was one of the main drivers of success in Liberia. Thirdly, don’t forget, both your primary beneficiary but also your biggest allies [are] the communities in all countries.

Peter Graaff and Cyvette Gibson, Mayor of Paynesville City, along with a team of community volunteers visit the Gobachop Redlight Community, Greater Monrovia, to speak to residents about Ebola prevention. Photo: UNMEER/Lisa White

And I know Liberia better than the other two countries given my previous position, its communities that self-organized, that didn’t wait for the national governments, that didn’t wait for the international responders, and started doing the things – often very good things, not always, but often good things – to deal with this.

UN News Service: You’ve spent quite of bit of time in the region. What is the general mood of the population?

Peter Graaf: Well, it varies from country to country. I would say in Liberia – happy to be out of the worst but still very concerned that it might or will come back. People are still vigilant, people are still washing hands. As for Sierra Leone and Guinea, a sense of frustration. As we saw in Liberia a few months ago, a sense of frustration, a sense of why is all our efforts not bearing fruit? And it will still take some time. What we need to do now is to transfer that frustration back into positive energy to go that last mile.

A mobile clinic set up by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and coordinated by UNMEER to provide basic healthcare services to residents of Liberia's Bomi County who would otherwise be unable to reach a healthcare facility. Photo: UNMEER/Simon Ruf

UN News Service: You arrived in West Africa with UNMEER from Afghanistan, where you were with the UN mission there, known as UNAMA. What was it like to make the transition from a conflict zone to a health crisis?

Peter Graaff: Actually, in between, I was with the World Health Organization for five or six weeks. So I left Afghanistan, re-joined my old organization, the World Health Organization, came in as the country representative for WHO, and then migrated back to UNAMA, a mission environment. In many ways, it is quite different. So in both environments, there are risks, very different risks. In both environments, you have to protect yourself from these risks.

For example, in Afghanistan, when you are talking about Personal Protective Equipment, PPE, you are talking about bullet-proof vests and helmets. In West Africa, you talk about the hoods and proper hygiene and not shaking hands. There are risks, but it’s a very different environment. The ability to move around freely, not sitting in armoured vehicles, mingling with the population, has been absolutely wonderful. The other thing that is very different is in Afghanistan, I love the country dearly, it is beautiful because it is open and there are deserts, and in West Africa it is all jungle and very green. So, it’s completely different in many ways.

Peter Graaff (left) with Dr. David Nabarro, Special Envoy on Ebola (centre), and Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank, in Monrovia, Liberia (December 2014). Photo: UNMEER/Simon Ruf

UN News Service: You are one of the longest serving senior officials in UNMEER. On a personal level, how has that experience been?

Peter Graaff: My background is health. So for someone who has a public health background, to be allowed to serve in an environment where you draw on basically what you set out to do 25 years ago and deal with a large, large public health outbreak is actually a privilege. And so for me personally, it has been really, really tough. I don’t think I’ve ever worked like this ever before, especially in the early days in September, October [2014]. I will not be able to forget the images of people dying in the street, the sound of sirens, things like that. And yet the incredible resilience, the warmth of the people I worked with, even in the darkest of days, it has been, and still is, a phenomenal experience.

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