Dignity, Solidarity, Courage: Responding to the Ebola Epidemic

A report from WYA Europe following the speech by Ambassador Samantha Power, US at the NATO Residence in Brussels.

Amb. Samantha Power

by Ben Phillips, WYA Europe

“It could be said that once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of plague was ended.” – Albert Camus, La Peste

Last Thursday Samantha Power gave a speech at the NATO residence in Brussels on the growing threat posed by the Ebola virus. The reason behind choosing to deliver this speech in Europe to a crowd of diplomats and Brussels insiders was to press the issue of the alarming gaps in [the West’s] collective response.” 

The crisis is all the more tragic for having struck a region already devastated by civil war, and for having undone much of the preciously fragile progress made since the various conflicts in Liberia and Sierra-Leone.

Power’s speech was at the same time practical, moving and tragic. Among the many difficulties that the ambassador raised was the lack of basic resources, with heart-breaking reports of people left at the door of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) facilities without treatment for lack of beds.

But among the suffering and inhuman conditions of the epidemic, there are also personal stories of strength, courage and dignity.

One inspiring example of interfaith solidarity was a constructive dialogue of religious leaders in Guinea, using their pulpits, as Power recounted, “not only to share religious doctrine, but also to share public health information. Under Grand Imam Camara’s leadership, the Imams of Guinea have clearly communicated that a safe burial can be consistent with a religious burial. In our meeting with the Grand Imam in Conakry’s Grand Mosque, he unequivocally told us that ‘religion cannot stop science.’” He has asked also fellow religious leaders to share this information in their communities.

In another effort to give the victims’ families some peace and protect them from further contagion, Power reported that President Koroma of Sierra Leone had set a goal to retrieve victims’ bodies and give them a dignified burial in Freetown within 24 hours of their being reported. This is a crucial way to help slow Ebola’s spread, because traditional burial rituals have been a major source of new infections.

Power warned, “Some in the international community have not yet shouldered their share of the response burden” and was asked a question on which particular countries have failed to do their fair share of helping to contain the virus. She answered that the participating countries had to do more relative to their GDP and capabilities, and (unusually for an American diplomat) praised Cuba for punching above their weight in their efforts.

WYA has also been following EU discussions on policy and response taking place in the parliament. The Development Committee hearing that took place on the third of November deliberated on the Ebola crisis for about an hour, and heard from Dr. Ousmane Sylla, Ambassador of Guinea to the European Union. Sylla gave a heartfelt plea to Committee members on behalf of the affected countries, and postulated the need for a “West African Marshall plan” and an international aid conference to be held in Brussels.

Also in attendance was African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States Chair Alhaji Muhammad Mumuni, who warned about the indirect calamities that are worsening the situation, such as the cessation of tourist activities and investment in Liberian mines. A recurring theme with the Power lecture was the prevention of stigmatisation once survivors were discharged from public health facilities, and the question of safe, yet dignified burials for those who succumb to the disease. Two NGO members that the Committee had invited echoed these views, based on experience gained combating the disease on the ground.

Among the countless stories of woe, hardship and sacrifice that Ebola have brought us, the courage of NGOs like Medecins Sans Frontieres have inspired many of us back in Europe. The people willing to lay down their lives in the name of collective solidarity deserve our commendations, for it is truly they that answer the Dalai Lama’s call to “universal responsibility.”

Dr FlaniganOne such man answering this call is WYA’s own Dr. Timothy Flanigan, who has worked tirelessly since October to restore the health care system in Monrovia. Tim is an infectious disease specialist who did not hesitate to put himself in harm’s way to bring back basic services to the hospitals that were shut down after some local doctors died from Ebola. With him, he brought the gowns and equipment needed to keep doctors and facilities safe and sterile, so as to help not only Ebola victims, but those in need of medical care for other reasons.

Europe and America have left this crisis alone for far too long. Our failure to empathise earlier with the suffering in West Africa left the threat of Ebola to fester out of sight until it started to affect us directly. The fact that the mainstream media underreported the tragedies in West Africa until Ebola reached our shores is the most damning indictment of Western hypocrisy and indifference.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from this crisis, it is that closing our eyes on the misery of others is ultimately self-damaging. Ebola does not distinguish between which person’s life to ruin, and shall not be contained on the African continent unless proper efforts are made on the ground to tackle the source of the epidemic. As the Dalai Lama reminds us: “Today, we are truly a global family. What happens in one part of the world may affect us all.”

Quite apart from the selfish and insularly motive of protecting ourselves, (that Europe is belatedly waking to) there is a moral aspect to this crisis that we have neglected for far too long. But with this crisis comes the opportunity to unite in solidarity with the developing world against this scourge, and make amends for our previous inaction. Power’s citation of the Cuban example highlights a fantastic opportunity for collaboration with previously hostile countries in the face of adversity. In the name of solidarity with the developing world, this is a chance that we cannot afford to squander.

You can read the full text of Samantha Power’s speech here: http://usun.state.gov/briefing/statements/233540.htm.