UNMEER: A Welcome New UN Agency to Fight Ebola—But Why So Late?

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The United Nations Security Council last Thursday unanimously adopted a   resolution declaring the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a threat to international peace and security.  The Council mandated UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to establish the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER).   

A day later the 193-member UN General Assembly adopted its own resolution approving the Security Council’s on UNMEER’s establishment. The Assembly called upon all Member States to fully support the new UN Agency.

The President of the General Assembly, Sam Kutesa,  warned that “Without quick and decisive action, the trail of devastation this outbreak leaves behind will reach far beyond the portions of West Africa most affected up to now.”

The Secretary General has already announced the establishment of the UNMEER to stop the outbreak, treat the infected, ensure essential services, preserve stability and prevent further outbreaks.

UNMEER will be headquartered in Accra, Ghana, with offices in the three most affected countries.  Accra’s Kotoko International Airport is to be used as the “vital air-bridge” for the receiving and transshipment of Ebola-related equipment and supplies to the affected nations.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director General, Dr. Margaret Chan, has declared that UNMEER is likely to be “the greatest peacetime challenge that the United Nations and its agencies have ever faced.”

The UN System Senior Coordinator for Ebola, Dr. David Nabarro, will provide strategic guidance to the Mission. The Secretary-General meanwhile plans to appoint a Special Representative to head UNMEER and accelerate support to the countries and people most affected by the Ebola crisis.

“The Mission will rely on the support of the entire UN system, in particular the critical technical expertise of the World Health Organization (WHO), and will work closely with Member States, regional organizations, civil society and the private sector.”

We believe that UNMEER’s  establishment is great news, even though it may seem to have come almost too late.  That was the same assessment which American journalist Laurie Garrett gave the United States’ intervention, through which it is sending in 3000 troops to fight the deadly Ebola virus in the three most affected West African countries—Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.  

Yes, we do not know why it took the world so long to respond to this catastrophe.  People are now comparing this belated response to President George W. Bush and the United States government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans and killed hundreds.  Some blamed it on racism, since New Orleans is predominantly black.

The WHO Director General, Dr. Margaret Chan, has herself called the Ebola outbreak “. . . not just a public health crisis.  This is a social crisis, a humanitarian crisis, an economic crisis and a threat to national security well beyond the outbreak zones.”

Dr. Chan is not new to this massive health crisis.  While  serving as Director of Health in her native Hong Kong in 1997, she confronted the first human outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza. She also  successfully defeated the spate of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Hong Kong in 2003; and launched new services to prevent disease and promote better health.

Yet it has taken the WHO, under her leadership, a full six months to respond in a serious way to this Ebola crisis.  The world, in particular the people of West Africa, need to know what happened.  

We are not here criticizing Dr. Chan or her organization, WHO.  However, people need to know why it took them so long to give a speedy and decisive response to this terrible health crisis that beginning day one last March  caused people to start dropping dead first in Guinea, then in Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Now, by the time everyone is rushing in to “help,” a staggering 2500 lives have been lost.  Also, the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other expert organizations have predicted that the Ebola virus could mutate (change) and spread, affecting and killing more people in its catastrophic path.

We hope that the new UN Agency, UNMEER, together with the efforts of the 3000-strong American military contingent, will make a quick difference and stop this terrible and tragic virus in its tracks.

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