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Learning the lesson of Ebola

In the city of Kenema, the third-largest urban area in Sierra Leone and one of the hardest hit by the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa, teams of local and international Red Cross and Red Crescent caregivers risk their lives daily so that everyone who enters the IFRC emergency treatment centre is given their best chance of survival. The centre opened in September at the request of the Sierra Leone government and is expected to operate for 12 months.

Meanwhile, since March, thousands of trained Red Cross workers and volunteers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have been working tirelessly to inform and mobilize communities, care for the sick and conduct safe and dignified burials, all of which are essential in bringing this epidemic under control. These workers are the heroes on the front line of a global effort to fend off an even wider Ebola outbreak. Another critical part of the Red Cross Red Crescent response has been the emergency preparations and training courses held in 15 African nations that are either already affected or at immediate risk of being affected.

Thanks to their efforts, we will ultimately defeat this disease. But even before that day comes, we have to ask ourselves a crucial question: what will we do next? Will we breathe a great sigh of relief and move on to other issues? Or will we truly learn the lesson presented by this unprecedented outbreak?

If this Ebola outbreak reveals one thing, it is how quickly a disease can ravage societies where there are no adequate, functioning health systems to detect disease, inform the public and respond quickly at the appropriate scale. Even in the most developed nations, the Ebola outbreak has revealed gaps in preparedness, training and equipment. But in these fragile states, still emerging from the shadows of war and years of political instability, the lack of sufficient hospital beds, personnel, ambulances and other essential tools has meant that many people never made it to hospital. Many were sent home to be cared for by relatives who themselves often became infected.

The crisis also revealed serious gaps in the response capacity of international humanitarian organizations, health agencies and donors. In recent years, there has been too great an emphasis on delivering projects aimed at one problem or disease, or towards attaining specific health goals, rather than developing functioning health systems able to respond to a wide range of unexpected health or natural disasters.

The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement will continue to support affected communities before, during and after the outbreak and help to develop the capacity of National Societies as important partners in local preparedness and prevention networks.

But this will not be enough if not matched by investment, both public and private, in long-term solutions that include education, good governance, improved infrastructure and functioning health systems. This will be expensive and it will take time. But it will not be as costly as the alternative: more deadly outbreaks.

The recent initiative by the World Bank to create a US$ 20 billion emergency fund is a positive step. But this investment should also contribute to developing systems that prevent future outbreaks, detect them quickly when they do arise and help local communities respond themselves. Many fragile states will always need external humanitarian support during emergencies. But developing stronger local capacity, built on and sustained by local knowledge, could reduce that need substantially.

We in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have been working for many years on building community resilience in the face of disasters and health emergencies. With deadly diseases such as dengue, cholera, malaria, HIV/AIDS and Ebola, the answer almost always lies in holistic solutions that involve communities, local and national governments, schools, local medical institutions and civil society combining their efforts.

As we work towards eradicating Ebola in West Africa and beyond, I urge the international community to deploy resources at a scale that reflects the magnitude of the challenges and matches the sacrifices being made by those on the front lines. And we must also keep an eye on the future so that once Ebola is defeated, we can channel our energies towards the next step: making all fragile nations healthier, safer and better prepared.

By Elhadj As Sy
Secretary General, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies




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