This is a Huge Turning Point in the Fight Against Ebola

Ebola is spiraling out of control. According to the latest figures of the World Health Organization there have been 5,335 cases and 2,622 deaths from the virus. And that figure is increasing exponentially. To be precise: it’s been doubling every three weeks.  

The response to date has been poor. One telling statistic: In Monrovia, Liberia 1,210 beds are required to treat Ebola patients. There are currently only 240.

The geographic spread of this outbreak across four countries and in urban centers in a region that has never before experienced ebola has severely hampered the international community’s response. The health systems in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are at their breaking point. Existing international health structures like the World Health Organization and NGOs like MSF are overwhelmed.

The international system has, so far, failed to stop this outbreak.  But the international system –specifically, the United Nations — is probably humanity’s best hope for turning this around.

For the first time in the history of the organization, an emergency UN Security Council meeting was held to deal with a public health emergency. This unprecedented meeting yielded an unprecedented result: the resolution, which passed unanimously, had 131 co-sponsors — the most ever for a UN Security Council resolution.

What can the resolution do? Much of the resolution is a generalized call for greater international solidarity and international contributions to the fight against ebola. But it also contains some specific provisions that could accelerate the international community’s response to the crisis. In particular, the resolution calls on countries to lift travel restrictions to and from affected countries. This has been an ongoing problem for the United Nations and NGOs.  Airlines have cancelled flights, and countries in the region have prevented the use of their airports to deliver personnel and assistance to affected countries.

These restrictions have significantly hindered the ability of international health workers, NGOs and the UN to do its job–and also made the delivery of supplies and personnel more expensive. Key countries in the region, including important travel hubs like Senegal, Cameroon, South Africa and Kenya, have banned travel to and from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.  In some cases, countries won’t even let UN planes land to refuel.

The resolution passed today explicitly calls for the lifting of these travel bans and the resumption of air travel to and from the affected region. And — this is key — Senegal, South Africa, Cameroon, Kenya, and Sierra Leone, have co-sponsored the resolution. This suggests that they have already lifted (or are preparing to lift) the travel bans.

That should be one immediate and tangible outcome of this emergency Security Council meeting. Another was the announcement by Ban Ki Moon of establishing a special United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, UNMEER. According to a letter to the Security Council obtained by UN Dispatch, the mission will “build and maintain a regional operational platform, ensuring the rapid delivery of international assistance against needs identified in affected states, lead the response at the operational level, and provide strategic direction for the United Nations system and partners on the ground.” In other words, this will be an arm of the UN General Secretariat devoted exclusively to containing ebola. Again, this is unprecedented.

Today’s Security Council meeting may very well be a turning point in the fight against ebola. The fact that it was the United States that called this meeting and drafted this resolution — and that the Security Council met two days after President Obama announced a huge scaling up of America’s ebola response — demonstrates that the United States is willing and able to take the lead. The fact that 130 other countries co-sponsored this resolution demonstrates an unprecedented degree of global solidarity around this plan. And finally, Ban Ki Moon’s announcement of a UN mission to help coordinate international efforts means that the nuts and bolts of the UN system are being summoned to contribute to the response.

There are very few global problems that cannot be solved with a combination of American leadership and broad international support through the UN system. This Security Council meeting was the moment that these elements finally came together.