Deeper analysis of the Ebola outbreak

A health worker in an Ebola treatment center run by Médecins Sans Frontières in Liberia. Photo by: Kenzo Tribouillard / European Union

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has exposed weaknesses in the international community’s humanitarian response. There are no vaccines for Ebola, and medical experts trained to handle infectious diseases are in short supply. Overwhelmed aid agencies that are used to responding to natural disasters are now confronted with a nonexistent supply chain, forcing them to start from scratch.

These challenges — and the criticism that has befallen critical agencies such as the World Health Organization for failing to stem the outbreak early on — led the United Nations in September to set up a dedicated agency, the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, whose main role is to bridge any information and logistical gaps in the aid response. It was also envisioned to bring together the different actors responding to the outbreak, which have for so long been working in silos.

Is it working? Is the aid and global health community now better organized and more coordinated in its response?

The evidence is still sparse, but there are indications that the aid community is learning its lessons, particularly in terms of communication. Development organizations are finding that there is no one-size-fits-all messaging campaign, but keeping victims’ families in the communication loop, through basic means such as local radio, is helping dispel mistrust and suspicion against health workers.

Despite some progress on the ground, it seems like the aid community is continuously playing catch up to the crisis and its aftereffects. In its latest report, WHO said more than 20,000 people have been infected by the virus and more than 8,000 have died. The outbreak’s socioeconomic impact on affected communities is increasingly worrying as well. Further, the aid community is faced with the challenge of not only quickly building and strengthening affected and at-risk countries’ health systems — which were sidelined in favor of other competing donor aid priorities — but also addressing issues that many fear have taken a back seat to Ebola: food security, malnutrition and unemployment, and even other health concerns such as HIV and AIDS.

UNMEER head Anthony Banbury told the U.N. Security Council in October that to successfully curb and stop the outbreak from spreading, 70 percent of infected victims must receive treatment and 70 percent of those who died must be buried safely by Dec. 1.

Have these targets been met?

The entire world is following the Ebola outbreak, but Devex knows that our community of aid, humanitarian and health workers is looking at the issue from a different and more nuanced perspective that requires deep analysis of the international development community response and path forward. And that’s exactly what we’ll continue to deliver.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.