The International Response to the Ebola Outbreak was a huge success. Back in September, it seemed as if the Ebola outbreak was spinning out of control. When the death toll didn't seem high enough, the stories became that the toll was under reported and stories that the outbreak could plunge Liberia back into civil war.Remember the September 23 New York Times headline: Ebola Cases Could Reach 1.4 Million in Four Months, CDC Estimates?
Instead, the number of new cases began to decline in late November. By late December, they had slowed to a trickle. Liberia has only had 12 cases in the last 21 days. Guinea and Sierra Leone are down to less than 200 new cases a week. The total case load will likely not exceed 25,000. This dramatic turnaround was a direct result of the strong international response.
Three activities were key to stopping the spread of the Ebola:
- Community Awareness: Ebola was spread through contact with the bodies of those that it had killed or were dying. Funeral rites had to change. People had to be convinced to give their loved ones over to foreign doctors draped in protective gear. Physical contact had to be limited. Changing attitudes is hard, but this was key to slowing the spread of Ebola. Some organizations took this on as a primary mission through radio messages and posters that still blanked Liberia. Others added this component to their work such as distributing Ebola awareness information to the farmers with whom they work.
- Safe Burials: An Ebola victim is hardly contagious until he is so sick that he can hardly move. His body remains highly contagious long after he has died. Touching the body of an Ebola victim is one of the easiest ways to contract Ebola. Traditionally, mourners would hug the corpse of their loved one to say goodbye. Stopping that practice was a key component of the community awareness. But bodies still had to be disposed of. In Liberia, the US government funded a large program to provide safe burials for all Ebola victims. This was very dangerous work and done very effectively by Global Communities. It is probably the reason that Ebola disappeared first in Liberia even though it had been hit the hardest.
- Constructing the Ebola Treatment Units: As the Ebola outbreak was growing, there was not enough room to treat the victims. The few treatment units were overwhelmed and the centers were forced to turn away people who were clearly very sick. Building more treatment units became an international priority. Once there were enough treatment units to house those who needed care, it was possible to isolate those sick with Ebola and prevent them from contaminating others. It also became easier to trace their contacts and seek out others that might become sick.
I believe that a decade from now, we will talk about the Ebola response as one of the great victories of foreign assistance. The international response was critical in turning the tide on the epidemic. Those people who went to Liberia to help and those who stayed in country are the heroes that saved West Africa and the rest of the world from a terrible disease.
The response to the Haiti Earthquake was also a great success and yet is frequently portrayed as a failure. Five years after the earthquake, Haiti’s economy is stronger than it has been in decades. There is more electricity, government services function better, and there are even twice as many international-standard hotel rooms. Does the International Community not get any credit for helping to rebuild Haiti?
In both cases, there was great chaos in the response. In Haiti, one of the biggest wastes of money was building camps and temporary shelters that ended up housing people who had never lost their home in the first place and became very difficult to close. In Liberia, one of the biggest wastes was the construction of the Ebola Treatment Units—although desperately needed in the beginning, construction of new ones continued long after the need for the units had disappeared. There were still units being built in January when there were only a handful of cases of Ebola. In both cases, once a need is identified and projects are funded, it is very hard to redirect that funding.
I loved that Time magazine named the Ebola Fighters as Person of the Year for 2014. I think that those who responded to the Haiti earthquake and those who donated to support it deserved the same honor in 2010.