As the worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history continues to accelerate in West Africa, with the World Health Organization announcing Thursday that up to 20,000 people could be infected throughout its course, experts and aid workers urge the rest of the world to take action and responsibility for the growing crisis.
"The international community has played a very detrimental role in de-funding and de-prioritizing the public health infrastructure in affected countries," Emira Woods, expert on U.S. foreign policy in Africa and social impact director at ThoughtWorks, a technology firm committed to social and economic justice, told Common Dreams.
According to WHO figures released Thursday, the deadly virus has already killed 1,552 people, with 3,069 infections reported in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. However, the actual number of cases might be between two and four times greater than currently known, the organization reports. Nearly 40 percent of the total number of reported cases have occurred within the past three weeks alone, indicating the outbreak continues to grow exponentially since it first emerged in March."There needs to be a concerted effort and political will to rebuild public health infrastructure with the understanding that health care is a right for all of us."
The disease was first reported in Guinea and has since spread, hitting Liberia the hardest. Nigerian authorities announced on Wednesday the country's first Ebola death outside the city limits of Lagos. An unrelated Ebola outbreak has hit the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Meanwhile, treatment centers are overwhelmed with patients, leaving the infected and dying without adequate care. Humanitarian aid organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported Wednesday that in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, which lies at the center of the outbreak, "[m]uch of the city’s medical system has shut down over fears of the virus among staff members and patients, leaving many people with no health care at all, generating an emergency within the emergency."
In addition to health systems, the outbreak is also shutting down market-places, farmlands, and food shipments, leading to a food security crises in some areas, including villages and slums under quarantine.
Experts and aid workers say that the onus is on the international community to take appropriate responsibility for the epidemic and its related social costs.
Woods argues that the current crisis stems from decades of macroeconomic policies, enforced by western financial institutions, that have weakened public health systems and other vital public goods. "The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have systematically pushed back on essential services like public health care in the affected countries," she said. "What you have are countries that, for the last few decades, have de-funded their health systems that were built just after independence and desperately needed an influx of resources to maintain their capacity."
According to Woods, these externally-imposed measures, in combination with "bad choices at the level of government," have not only hurt vulnerable populations, but also led to poor working conditions and compensation for health care professionals, causing a "brain drain" that has reduced the numbers of in-country nurses and doctors available to help stem the current epidemic. The WHO reports that Liberia has only 51 doctors for every four million people—the second lowest physician to patient ratio on the planet.
Medical professionals on the ground charge that the global response is far more focused on national self-preservation than assisting the people caught in the path of this disease—which is transmitted through contact with organs and bodily fluids and has a fatality rate of 50 to 90 percent with no known cure.
“It is simply unacceptable that, five months after the declaration of this Ebola outbreak, serious discussions are only starting now about international leadership and coordination,” Brice de le Vingne, MSF director of operations, declared Wednesday in a press statement. “Self-protection is occupying the entire focus of states that have the expertise and resources to make a dramatic difference in the affected countries. They can do more, so why don’t they?”
“This is not only an Ebola outbreak—it is a humanitarian emergency, and it needs a full-scale humanitarian response,” said Lindis Hurum, MSF emergency coordinator in Monrovia.
The WHO on Thursday unveiled a Road Map (PDF) that aims to stop the Ebola outbreak over the next six to nine months in affected areas and prevent it from spreading world-wide. Woods says that she applauds any and all efforts to address the crisis. However, she urges that a real solution to this outbreak and other health emergencies in Western African countries lies in "prioritizing, strengthening, and re-building public health infrastructure."
"There needs to be a concerted effort and political will to rebuild public health infrastructure with the understanding that health care is a right for all of us," said Woods. "Without public health infrastructure, those already marginalized are pushed further to the brink."