Our shameful response to the ebola crisis

Published by The Independent (20th October, 2014)

I relaxed again this weekend. It was 21 days since I returned from Liberia to report on the human tragedy of the Ebola epidemic, so the incubation period was over; no longer would I wake up wondering if that slight sore throat might be the start of something far worse. But the legacy of witnessing so many people and their nation fighting for survival will linger much longer.

I met many heroes fighting to contain the virus, which has already claimed more victims than all previous outbreaks combined. The official death toll has topped 4,500, although true levels are thought to be three times higher. The number of cases doubles every three weeks in Liberia; even as the world finally wakes up to the scale of this crisis, experts do not expect to start containing the outbreak until early next year at best.

The heroes included local medics and body collection teams, ignoring high death rates and stigma in communities to save their nation, and those such as doctors from Uganda who had combated Ebola at home and rushed to help. Then there are the volunteers with Médecins Sans Frontières – a charity that has played such a critical role, underlining again its unique credentials in a sector crammed with charlatans.

What a contrast to all the global agencies and governments who have suddenly pressed the panic buttons and started pontificating with such certainty after the disease dribbled into Spain and the United States. Yet the abject failure of all those highly-paid officials, the international organisations and even the bulk of the over-blown aid industry to heed obvious warning signs means there will be thousands of needless deaths and it will cost billions more to contain this horrific outbreak.

Little wonder MSF is so angered by the shameful inadequacy of response. Even now, seven months after the outbreak was confirmed and seven weeks after the despairing group begged for military support for the first time in its history, little has changed on the ground. This single charity is still running 650 of the 1,000 treatment beds available in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. ‘Lots of people are turning up to look at how to help rather than actually deploying,’ said one source.

The most egregious failure is that of the World Health Organisation, the United Nations body meant to show leadership on such matters. It seems incredible that when MSF first warned Ebola was getting out of control in April, it was rebuked on social media by a WHO spokesman. Two months later the spread and scale of the epidemic was obvious to experts – yet it took two more months for this inept organisation to finally concede there was an international health emergency. It blames local officials – yet even last week its boss spent the week discussing tobacco taxes in Russia rather than tackling the crisis.

Heads should roll for such failures. But do not hold your breath, given how the arrogant UN still refuses to apologise for cholera spreading to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, which has so far killed 9,000 people. Now its officials are berating countries for ignoring what has become a global security threat, although this is partly a consequence of their own fatally slow response that delayed more rapid deployment of resources.

The British Government, finally spurred into action by Barack Obama, keeps claiming leadership of the international response – to the growing fury of those on the ground. But Britain is still building its first treatment unit and although many NHS staff have volunteered, none are yet in place.

Compare this with Cuba, a nation with just one-sixth of our population, which has 165 health professionals in Sierra Leone; it is their doctors who will staff this first British-built clinic. Downing Street insisted for political reasons on airport screening, which medical advisers say is pointless compared with stopping the disease at source. British troops have begun arriving on the ground, where they will help build treatment centres supporting 700 beds by December. This is welcome but belated. To put it in proportion, it is anticipated that such is the exponential growth of this disease, there may be 10,000 cases a week across the region by then.

And where have been all those other well-funded aid bodies? I gather Whitehall officials had to put heavy pressure on some charities, reminding them how much cash they get from the state. It was noticeable in Liberia that only one US charity was running clinics alongside MSF – and it had to rely on doctors from the developing world. UK agencies admit that technical experts have been reluctant to volunteer, unlike in previous disasters.

Three months ago MSF issued a provocative report accusing rival aid groups of pulling back from emergency work in favour of fashionable concepts such as conflict resolution, capacity-building and governance. The Ebola crisis seems to underline the truth of their attack – along with providing more painful evidence of the failure of vast sums of aid to create robust public services and uncorrupt governments.

For all the hysteria, we must be thankful the world has begun to understand the epic scale of this outbreak and the need for concerted global action. But when finally contained, we must not ignore profound questions raised by an epidemic that is tragic on so many levels.


Most recent articles

They brainwashed our boys and made them watch beheading videos

Published by The Mail on Sunday (11th October, 2014) Hamid’s son had been missing for a week, seized by Islamic State gunmen along with 148 other schoolchildren, when a friend discovered the fanatics had posted a contact number for distraught parents on the internet. He called the number and a militant put the terrified 13-year-old […]

An earthquake called Ukip hits Britain

Published by The Wall Street Journal (17th October, 2014) It is curious to think that the modest seaside resort of Clacton might end up a landmark in British history. Yet future historians may one day trace the effective end of Britain’s two-party system—and conceivably even of the Conservative Party—to this fading place of few pretensions […]

Ched Evans has been punished. Let him return to his job

Published by The Guardian (17th October, 2014) Let us start with the most important fact. Ched Evans is a rapist, a footballer found guilty of predatory assault on a drunken teenager dazzled by his fame and wealth. Forget for now the well-financed campaign to clear his name, the offensive statements from his family that he remains […]

Britain needs a party that proudly champions cosmopolitan values

Published by The Financial Times (17th October, 2014) These are strange times. An insurgent political party has won a single parliamentary by-election plus the support of fewer than one in five British voters – yet it seems to be almost running the country such is the fear it has created among opponents. It may soon […]

Another first-class delivery

Published by The Daily Mail (10th October, 2014) Please, Mr Postman by Alan Johnson (Bantam) One day in June 1969, a young couple from London took the train to Slough where they had been offered a council house. Seeing two policemen, they asked if they could direct them to the Britwell estate. ‘We should do, we […]

We’re heading for a crisis whoever wins the election

Published by The Independent (6th October, 2014) There is something absurd about the Liberal Democrat conference, with all those attacks on their partners in government over the past four years. Such are the desperate tactics of a party crushed by coalition, one that has lost sight of its crucial historic purpose as it flails around for […]

A lethal epidemic and a lethargic global response

Published by The Independent (4th October, 2014) Augustin was agitated and scared. After weeks spent hiding in his house with his wife and children, he had left the safety of its confines to take his aunt to a new Ebola clinic for testing. This poor woman had already lost two daughters, one son-in-law and two […]

A Conservative split may be the catharsis the party needs

Published by The Guardian (1st October, 2014) The room was packed in anticipation of good debate. But from the start of the Conservative conference fringe event on immigration there was an air of unpleasant hostility from a group of older people – as I suggested the Tory party needed to adapt to the modern world, […]

Bonfire of the ebola victims

Published by The Mail on Sunday (28th September, 2014) As I walked into the walled Hindu-style cremation site outside Monrovia alongside the latest consignment of bodies, I saw a smouldering pile of ashes with smoke rising from it. Scattered among the flickering flames were clearly visible human bones: femurs, hip joints and even the odd […]

Obesity: Africa’s new crisis

Published by The Observer Magazine (21st September, 2014) When the first McDonald’s restaurant opened almost two decades ago in Johannesburg, a teenage boy named Thando Tshabalala was among the thousands who stood in line patiently waiting to try one of those famous burgers. “We had seen this place in every movie we ever watched, and […]

The deepening dilemma over hostages

Published by The Independent (September 15th, 2014) The fact that it was almost expected does not make it any less hideous. David Haines, a good man who went to Syria to help deliver aid to people whose lives had been wrecked by war, was dressed in the all-too-familiar orange garb of Guantanamo and murdered in the […]

Last-minute deals turn the spotlight on Westminster

Published by The Financial Times (19th September, 2014) So the most thrilling political debate in recent British history is over, and the divisive force of nationalism has been defeated for at least a generation. Already those amazing 12 days of panic are melting into the past following the salvation of the union. Unfortunately, there are […]

It’s tough when a disabled child becomes adult

Published by The Sun (17th September, 2014) The birth of a child who turns out to have profound and complex disabilities is a shock. It sent me spiralling into depression that I later learned to be a form of grief. My gorgeous girl began having small seizures when just a few weeks old. She was […]

We must tax sugar before Britain eats itself to death

Published by The Daily Mail (19th September, 2014) Mr Cube played a big role in my childhood. Not only did he help fund my schooling and summer holidays, but he also filled my house with all manner of sweet delights, syrupy treats and sickly treacles. For my father was an executive with Tate & Lyle, […]

Passions run high with only 100 hours until polling starts

Published by The Mail on Sunday (14th September, 2014) As the autumn sun shone down and the ear-splitting sounds of pipes and drums from thousands of Orange Order marchers filled Edinburgh, the Californian tourists could not have been happier. ‘This is so fabulous,’ said Mary, a film location scout, smiling as her husband snapped away […]

South Africa’s obesity crisis: the shape of things to come?

Published by Mosaic Science (9th September, 2014) When the first McDonald’s restaurant opened almost two decades ago in Johannesburg, a teenage boy named Thando Tshabalala was among the thousands who stood in line patiently waiting to try one of those famous burgers. “We had seen this place in every movie we ever watched, and it […]

A sick British hostage and torture by Taser

Published by The Mail on Sunday (7th September, 2014) The British aid worker threatened with beheading by Islamic militants in Syria has been so desperately ill that his captors have been forced to summon a doctor to treat him. Father-of-two David Haines has been struggling to hold down food and suffering from acute gastric and […]

Arrogant doctors and a sinister abuse of power

Published by The Daily Mail (2nd September, 2014) Ashya King’s parents are not murderers, terrorists or vicious thieves. They are just a couple from Hampshire determined to do the best for their dreadfully-sick son who lies under police guard in a foreign hospital bed, torn from his family. Although we do not know the full […]

Why do we stand by and watch Putin?

Published by The Independent (1st September, 2014) There were long queues of cars at checkpoints in Mariupol yesterday morning. Many were filled with families fleeing the city,which lies in south-east Ukraine, after Russian troops crossed the border and turned up nearby. Meanwhile the city’s civil defence chief issued those residents who remained with tips for avoiding […]

Assassins linked to Kagame regime

Published by The Independent (30th August, 2014) Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa had only been in South Africa for a few months when, returning home from a shopping trip with his wife and children, a gunman tried to kill him. The Rwandan general, exiled after falling out with President Paul Kagame, survived after being rushed to intensive […]


Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: