Time ‘Our Biggest Enemy’ in Fight against Ebola, Senior Official Tells Security Council, Pleading for Collective Action

14 October 2014
SC/11601

Time ‘Our Biggest Enemy’ in Fight against Ebola, Senior Official Tells Security Council, Pleading for Collective Action

7279th Meeting (PM)

In the Security Council today, officials of the United Nations and affected countries alike continued to sound the alarm on the devastating effects of the Ebola epidemic, pleading for international action that matched the magnitude of the scourge and expressing gratitude for the international aid that had already been delivered or pledged.

In its second meeting on Ebola in a month, the Council heard updates on the situation by Anthony Banbury, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER); Hervé Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations; and Tayé-Brook Zerihoun, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs.

Dr. Banbury, speaking via videoconference from Accra, said that since its 19 September creation, UNMEER had taken a number of steps to galvanize the international community against Ebola.  Yet, he was worried that the combined efforts were not nearly enough to stop the disease.

Stressing that the world could not let Ebola win the race, he outlined four areas for collective action:  to identify and trace contacts, manage the cases, ensure safe burials and provide useful information to people, so they could protect themselves.  Each involved complex operations on the ground and "if we fail at any of these, we fail entirely," he cautioned.  The World Health Organization (WHO) had advised that, within 60 days of 1 October, 70 per cent of those infected must be in a hospital and 70 per cent of the victims safely buried to reverse the outbreak.

The "excruciating" challenge was that the number of infected grew exponentially each day, he said, noting that UNMEER was entirely focused on putting in place an emergency response plan.  "If we do not reach our targets, and the number of people with Ebola rises dramatically, the plan we have is not scalable to the size of a new crisis," he said.  By 1 December, 10,000 new cases per week were expected, meaning that 7,000 beds were needed.  The Mission expected to have 4,300 beds in treatment centres by that date.  Facilities, as well as trained, paid and properly equipped staff were urgently needed to care for people.

Furthermore, assistance must be tailored to urban areas, he said, where the disease was spreading most rapidly.  Some 15 diagnostic labs were needed, each able to process 100 samples per day.  The number of burial teams had to increase from 50 to 500.  They needed 1,000 vehicles, protective suits, chlorine sprayers, training and salaries — all before 1 December.  More contact tracing was needed, requiring more staff, medical support, security arrangements, motorcycles, generators, laptops and bandwidth.

"Time is our biggest enemy," he said.  For its part, UNMEER had quickly set up a headquarters in Accra, deployed 84 international staff, and installed robust communications and Internet links.  "Never before have I seen the [United Nations] move so fast in such a unified manner," he said.

More broadly, UNMEER was putting in place a comprehensive operational plan, which identified all lines of activity.  While Governments would own the Ebola response in their country, the plan would help ensure that no gaps were unfilled and that resources were used efficiently.  For each activity, there were an equal number of vital actions to be taken.  All elements must be carried out properly as failure in any one area would allow the virus to "find a chink in the armour" and continue to spread.

He said the epidemic could be stopped with more and immediate involvement of non-governmental organizations and Governments, notably to build treatment facilities, provide logistics and transport support, and money to pay for a rapid acceleration in operational response.  The penalty for delay was enormous, and for failure — inconceivable and unacceptable.  "We must act now," he stressed.

Speaking next, Mr. Ladsous said that, in Liberia, fragile but considerable gains made over the last decade risked a reversal:  Political and social divisions were deepening, the national health system was nearing collapse and the survival of the most vulnerable had grown more precarious.  While a crisis of that magnitude could be a unifying factor, mistrust had deepened as national institutions had struggled to respond and people’s needs were not being met.

The crisis had also triggered political tension, he said, noting that elections scheduled for today would not take place and that disagreement persisted over which entity had the power to suspend them.  For its part, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) had emphasized the importance of upholding the rule of law and respecting citizens’ rights.  It was working with all political stakeholders to encourage a consensual solution, while protecting people from the spread of Ebola.

Importantly, he said, there had been no discernible deterioration in the fragile security situation.  Notwithstanding such vigilance, it was with deep regret that, in late September, an UNMIL national staff member died, most probably from Ebola.  On 13 October, an international UNMIL staff member also died after being diagnosed in Liberia one week earlier.  Thirty-nine other personnel had since been placed under quarantine or were being watched for possible exposure.

Turning to Côte d'Ivoire and Mali, he said both countries had taken rigorous measures to ensure that Ebola did not spread, and that if it did, taken steps to prepare.  Their health systems were more developed than those of their neighbours.  Emergency response plans had been set up for medical quarantine and treatment.

Taye-Brooks Zerihoun, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said there was growing concern over the impact of the Ebola outbreak on peace and security in the wider West African subregion, particularly since the area had been emerging from conflict.  Regionally, the outbreak had hampered cross-border security and economic cooperation.  Nationally — in the most-affected countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — it had delayed a number of electoral and other political processes and slowed Government programmes; and locally, it had led to mistrust between communities and authorities, resulting in violence.

Construction, mining, manufacturing, tourism and transportation had been disrupted in the three most-affected countries, he said, expressing concern over serious economic effects.  There also were concerns over the discontinuation of peacebuilding projects, as well as the consequences of isolation and stigmatization, emergency measures and restrictions.  There had been riots and attacks on health workers and clinics.  At the same time, regional organizations had been working towards coherent cooperation to fight the disease; and Nigeria and Senegal had taken swift and effective action.  The international community must continue to assist the region to stop, treat and prevent a looming pandemic with its dangerous peace and security risks.

Following those briefings, the representatives of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea expressed their concerns about the virus’ unprecedented spread and paid tribute to those who had risked their lives in the effort to help others.

Sierra Leone's representative, Vandi Chidi Minah, described a deepening crisis and said that Ebola had not only hobbled his country's drive for inclusive growth and endangered its post-conflict progress, but it had halted much international engagement.  Most notably, that included the quarantine of a battalion of peacekeepers from the country who had been due to relieve its contingent in Somalia.  He commended the creation of UNMEER, but regretted that the international response had not met the 20-fold increase proposed by the head of WHO.  He listed supplies, personnel, facilities and expertise that were priorities.

He conveyed the proposal by President Ernest Bai Koroma for a subregional Mano River Summit with UNMEER to tighten plans, bridge gaps and move forward together.  It was critical not to isolate the country; maintaining the air bridge was critical.  He requested that his Government be consulted on all strategies and that commitments be translated into action.  "The depth of fear evoked by Ebola must be matched by the force of will to beat this scourge," he said.

The representative of Liberia, Marjon V. Kamara, said that her country was still leading in the rate of infection and death, despite being the smallest of the three most-affected countries, and despite great national efforts and international commitments.  "The spread of the disease continues to outpace actions taken, so we are not yet ahead of the curve," she stated.

The spread of Ebola had interrupted progress on many fronts and placed the society under great stress, with high prices, lost livelihoods and a host of activities stopped, she said.  The paltry resources that had been diverted to fighting the threat were inadequate and health workers were threatening to strike.  All efforts should be made to greatly accelerate support for the national response.  "We must protect the gains made in Liberia on all fronts," she said.

Finally, Guinea's representative, Mamadi Touré, said that, in his country, the number of victims continued to rise at an alarming rate, and the economic, social and humanitarian consequences continued to worsen, along with a kind of generalized psychosis affecting the population.  The spread of the epidemic, together with the weakness of the health system and other services, had outpaced the Government's capabilities, resulting in a crisis of confidence and threatening stability.

Accelerated aid and deployment of UNMEER was, therefore, urgent for his country, as well.  In addition to aid for treatment and prevention, the Mission should also focus on awareness-raising.  He proposed that the Security Council, at its next meeting, hear from health responders on the front line.  That was a matter of international peace and security.  "We must save lives while there is still time to do so and preserve peace achievements of the past years," he said.

The meeting began at 3:08 p.m. and ended at 4:30 p.m.

For information media. Not an official record.