The Mano River Union: A Complex Emergency

Kandeh K. Yumkella, United Nations Under-Secretary-General, shares his thoughts on the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), reminds us of our shared responsibilities, lessons to be learnt going forward and prays for a speedy return to normalcy.

What started few weeks ago as an isolated incident in the forest region of Guinea has now metastasized into a “complex emergency”. Though in the UN we typically reserve this term for countries or regions with major conflicts and wars, others in the humanitarian assistance community use it more broadly to describe situations where “the need for large-scale, multi-faceted humanitarian assistance is required” to end human misery.

Most experts now believe that the Mano River Union (MRU) requires a massive global intervention to fight Ebola. Peter Piot, my former colleague on the UN-Chief Executives Board, now a Professor and Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in the Guardian this week that “the outbreak was now so bad that a UN peacekeeping force ought to be mobilized in Sierra Leone and Liberia with huge donations of beds, ambulances and trucks as well as an army of clinicians, doctors and nurses”. Peter knows what he is talking about! Forty (40) years ago, he discovered the virus in the Congo and successfully led UNAIDS as chief executive for many years. He and I will discuss these and other issues in London at a panel discussion organized by the Royal African Society in September.

Emerging global support:

The announcement by the governments of China, Cuba, USA and the UK of the deployment of thousands of military and medical personnel, and hundreds of millions of dollars of military assets demonstrates that the Ebola situation in the union is indeed now a full blown complex emergency. Peter’s call has been answered. However, it must be noted that not even the Syrian or the Ukrainian conflicts have garnered such a quick response or deployment of resources from these countries (including boots on the ground) as we have witnessed this week. Those efforts have been reinforced by the support of the UN, World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), African Development Bank (AfDB) and others.

At the Security Council today, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon observed that, “Despite these wide-ranging efforts, the spread of the disease is outpacing the response. No single government can manage the crisis on its own. The United Nations cannot do it alone. This unprecedented situation requires unprecedented steps to save lives and safeguard peace security. Therefore, I have decided to establish a UN emergency health mission, combining the World Health Organization’s strategic perspective with a very strong logistics and operational capability”.

Though some are sometimes quick to bash the so-called international community, or blame them when things don’t work, the community has now come to our rescue twice within 20 years (in order to ensure that our nation states in the MRU do not collapse and become failed states again). Rather we should be grateful – perhaps this is the beginning of the end of Ebola in our region.

Our responsibility:

The question is, how effectively will our people integrate this international assistance with local efforts to win the war on Ebola? But more importantly, what will we learn about rebuilding medical institutions and infrastructure for the next generation? As I was checking in at the airport on the way to the UN General Assembly, another colleague was checking in for Irbil in Iraq to support a brewing humanitarian crisis there as well. It is clear that the people of the MRU cannot afford to waste the investments that development partners are now committing to our region because other regions (Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, etc.) might need their attention. Ebola should also be a wake-up call for us about the fragility of our institutions (including education and democracy) and our economies.

Some experts have noted that “disasters can result from several different hazards or, more often, to a complex combination of both natural and man-made causes and different causes of vulnerability, food insecurity, epidemics, conflicts and displaced populations are examples”. In the Ebola saga, natural and man-made factors have converged to make this outbreak the worst in almost half a century. Scientists have already warned that the rapid mutation of the virus might make it air-borne; in which case we will witness a global catastrophe. Therefore, it is in the enlightened self-interest of the rest of the world to support the MRU and West Africa in this time of need.

Learning from Experience:

Michael Osterholm, director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota is quoted in the International New York Times as saying “we should see all of West Africa now as one big outbreak” and the rest if the world has to join the global effort to contain the disease in all countries with reported case (INT/17-9-14). We hope that the effort will also go further to find a vaccine or cure. More G8 countries, emerging economies, philanthropists, and foundations should now join this new push to defeat Ebola once and for all. Some of us will continue our behind-the-scenes efforts to keep pressing for greater international cooperation and solidarity.

Over two thousand years ago Aeschylus observed that truth is the first casualty of war. In this war on Ebola, we must understand that there are no quick fixes, common sense is not enough, and we must be ready to learn from our mistakes. Later when we review our disaster management services and public policy making, we might learn about what we should and should not do in governance.

Some humility is required in the learning and healing process. Disseminating the correct information, in a simple manner and on time, must be a critical part of the containment strategy. We can assist our governments to make the right decisions by providing information on good-/best-practices, while also highlighting implementation lapses and problems.

Hence, my plea a few months ago that we should go beyond common sense and use the best expertise. Our military and security personnel and those responsible for emergency/disaster response should learn from their colleagues when they are deployed from China, Cuba, US and UK, how logistics planning, crowd control, communications/intel are integrated to respond to disasters. Other decision makers should understand that the externalities, perhaps collateral damage of the Ebola war will be far reaching

The international development agencies must also learn lessons and recognize that our systems were also not adequately prepared to respond to the speed and scale of this crisis. The member states that seat on the boards of these institutions and propose deep reforms and restructuring should not be driven primarily by budgetary considerations, but should also be guided by recognition of the emerging threats and risks to global security, peace and stability. After SARS, H1N1 and Ebola, the question that comes to mind is: Will the institutions be ready for the next major pandemic?

However small, do your part:

As individuals we must also play our part, however small it might be. We who can donate rice, onions, cooking oil should continue to do so. We should also not forget the plight of the children who may lose half a year or more from school. A friend of ours is now developing radio programmes for kindergarten and primary school kids to sustain their craving for education.

Today, on October 18, Member States debated the Ebola issue at the UN Security Council, perhaps in recognizing of the fact that the speed and scale of the crisis could easily morph into political instability and conflict. It is gratifying to see the Mano River Women’s Peace Network MARWOPNET/REFMAP contributing to the debate at the UN.

We must continue to mobilize support for our local communities and the families of those who succumbed to the disease. I know the Kailahun, Kenema and Pujehun descendants at home and in the US and UK are already actively mobilizing support for their folks. Groups like NOSLINA, Tegloma and the Krio Descendants Association are also providing much needed support across the country. Others should do the same even before their communities are affected. Everything is needed now, food, used clothing, disinfectants etc.

Post Ebola and Efficacy:

We must also brace ourselves for the post-Ebola economic recovery challenges. Already at the World Bank last week, I talked to some colleagues there about how to mitigate the negative impacts of the Ebola crisis on growth, energy access, other development targets and investments. But I have no doubt that we can rise to meet those challenges, as we did after the war.

Finally, the jury is still out on the efficacy and impact of the quarantine measures and the lockdown in all three countries. As Andrew Keili suggests “a man has got to do, what a man has got to do”. Tough times call for tough actions, and sometimes governance means some risky choices – however such decision must be accompanied by well-planned and coordinated actions (especially in a complex emergency).

I have no doubt that we can rise to meet the challenges as we did after the war. As President Koroma noted, “we have shown great resolve as a nation to overcome tragedy and become a symbol of recovery, democracy and peace in the world. But for now, the struggles continue. ALUTA CONTINUA!!!

By Dr. Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella