Leaders of the United Nations convened for an unprecedented hearing on Ebola Thursday afternoon, marking the first time in history the commission has called an emergency meeting on a global health issue.
In opening remarks, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the current outbreak, which is now greater than the previous 20 Ebola outbreaks combined, a “threat to international peace and security.” Ban Ki-moon announced the creation of a new commission known as the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (or, UNMEER), a part of the new resolution to combat the rapidly evolving outbreak.
Combining the efforts of the World Health Organization and the UN, Ban Ki-moon says it will bring together a “full range of actors” with the expertise needed to contain Ebola in West Africa. “The spread of the disease is outpacing the response,” said Ban Ki-moon. “No single government can manage the crisis on its own.”
Margaret Chan, director of WHO, delivered sobering statistics on the Ebola epidemic, which she called “one of the most horrific diseases on the planet.” In the six months since it began, more than 5,500 have been infected and well over 2,500 died—shocking figures that Chan called a “vast underestimate” of the reality. Every two weeks, the number of cases and deaths doubles. The number is particularly frightening given the magnitude of those at risk in the hardest hit countries, just over 22 million people.
A triage nurse from MSF Doctors Without Borders in Monrovia spoke to the congregation via webcam, illustrating the unbearable anguish that a shrinking number of health care workers in West Africa face every day. In a particularly horrifying scene, he described the front gates of the isolation center where he met a young boy whose father had just died from Ebola. Bleeding from the mouth, it was clear that the young boy was also carrying the disease. But without any additional beds at the treatment center, there was nothing the nurse could do. “We have to turn people away and they are dying at our front gates,” said the MSF rep. “Right now, as I speak, there are patients sitting at our front gates literally begging their lives. They are left alone; they die a horrible, undignified death alone. We are failing the sick because there are not enough people on the ground.”
The nurse pleaded with the UN Security Council, and the international community as a whole, to step up their response. “Please send your helicopters, your beds, your experts,” he said. “But know that we also need the basics. There are still homes in Monrovia that do not have soap, water, buckets, or food.”
With hospitals in the affected nations already strapped to provide basic health care, many are now dying from other, easily treatable conditions. “We do not have the capacity to respond to the crisis on our own,” said the nurse. “If the international community does not stand up, we will be wiped out.”
Ban Ki-moon issued an international call to action, appealing specifically to major airlines and shipping companies to resume services to isolation areas—saying that refusing to do so only hampers efforts to reach people in need. When presented with the resolution, the assembly’s approval was unanimous.
Dr. David Nabarro, Senior UN System Coordinator for Ebola Relief, delivered impassioned remarks about his visits to the three affected countries. To get the outbreak under control, Nabarro estimates that the level of response must be 20-times the greater than the current effort.
Samantha Power, acting president of the UN Security Council, relayed a particularly alarming quote that Director of the CDC Thomas Frieden delivered to another UN Representative earlier in the week: “I have never seen an infectious disease of this lethality spreading so fast,” he said. Power echoed the MSF nurse’s calls not just for medical supplies but for food, water, and other basic necessities. To highlight how tragic the situation has become in West Africa, she told the story of a father trying desperately—and ultimately in vain—to find a place for his Ebola-stricken daughter to die. Without a place to deliver her, he feared the rest of his family would soon die too. Overcrowded and strapped for workers, there was not a single medical facility that could take her. “We don’t want to live in a world where a father burying his sick daughter is turned away,” said Power of the heart-wrenching tale. “It’s against everything we stand for and believe in, and it’s wrong.”
Power, who called the epidemic the “greatest peacetime challenge the UN and its agencies have ever faced,” said the safekeeping of the world hinges on how we responsed now. “This is a social crisis, a humanitarian crisis, and a threat to international peace and security,” she said. “The UN was built for global challenges like this one. Let us rise together to confront this challenge head on.”