Obama Warns UN of Looming Ebola ‘Catastrophe’

Obama spoke to the UN Thursday about Ebola, calling all nations to action and warning of ‘catastrophe’ if we don’t act.

09.25.14 5:30 PM ET

In a speech to the United Nations Thursday, President Obama galvanized world leaders to make the Ebola epidemic a priority, calling it a “growing threat” to global security.

“If this epidemic is not stopped, this disease could cause a humanitarian catastrophe across the region,” Obama told the UN. “In an era when regional crises can quickly become global threats, stopping Ebola is in the interests of the entire world.”

Since the outbreak began in March, global mobilization efforts to combat the epidemic have been severely delayed. Last week, Obama announced the deployment of 3,000 troops to Liberia to provide support to those fighting the disease. But with a new report from the CDC Wednesday suggesting a worst-case scenario of 1.4 million cases by January, a surge in support seems long overdue.

“We know from experience that the response to an outbreak of this magnitude needs to be both fast and sustained—like a marathon, but run at the pace of a sprint,” Obama told the UN. But with America in the midst of another battle abroad, the president seems anxious to enlist the help of other countries. “That’s only possible if every nation and every organization does its part. And everyone has to do more.”

In August, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak in West Africa an international health emergency, nearly six months after the initial case in Guinea. Current data from WHO, which the director calls a “vast underestimate,” stands at 2,917 deaths out of 6,263 cases of Ebola in West Africa. According to the CDC’s report Wednesday, the real numbers to be 2.5 times as high.

If global support has yet to curb the spread of the disease, it’s not for lack of trying.

Last Thursday, China pledged $33 million to UN emergency aid, after earlier sending $2 million to the World Health Organization and African Union. With more than 50 new Chinese scientists arriving last week in Sierra Leone, the country now has over 200 medical experts helping on the ground.

Responding to the outbreak last Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a joint airlift with France to use base military planes to send supplies, a mobile clinic, and personnel. The planes, which will deliver 100 tons of supplies per day, will be bolstered by each country’s own treatment center—France’s in Guinea, Germany’s in Liberia.

The UK, too, is now an active player in the containment mission. But their pledge, to donate 700 beds to Sierra Leone in “the next few months,” is perhaps a perfect embodiment of the fatal flaw in the world’s response effort: timing. According to the CDC’s Wednesday report, the rate of deaths and cases in West Africa is doubling in as little as 30-day periods. At an emergency UN Security Council meeting on Ebola last week, WHO Director Margaret Chan claimed the speed with which the epidemic is growing is even faster, with the number of cases doubling “every two weeks.”

At the current rate with which the epidemic is moving—without a successful containment effort—there will be 8,000 cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia by September 30 alone. Seven hundred beds may make a difference today, but in a “few months time,” the contribution will likely seem pathetic.

Obama appeared acutely aware of the magnitude of the situation, and the urgency with which immediate action is needed. “I want us to be clear: We are not moving fast enough. We are not doing enough. Right now, everybody has the best of intentions, but people are not putting in the kinds of resources that are necessary to put a stop to this epidemic,” he told world leaders. “There is still a significant gap between where we are and where we need to be.”

More contributions continue to flow in daily, including a pledge from the World Bank of $170 million (bringing their total support to $400 million), but the concern that it’s all too little, too late, is warranted. With the U.S. in the process of deploying thousands of troops to Liberia to the tune of hundreds of millions, the president says it is time the rest of the world step up.

“[The U.S.] can’t do this alone. Do not stand by thinking that somehow because of what we’ve done, it’s somehow taken care of,” said Obama. “It’s not.”