Following the first known transmission of Ebola in the United States this month, the shores of West Africa no longer feel so far away. While diseases have never known borders, this reality has become ever more acute for Americans, whether we live near the hospital in Dallas and its now famous isolation unit, or here in Lewiston.
Steadfast precautions and leadership from the United Nation’s World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes it highly unlikely that our community would ever see a true Ebola threat. Nonetheless, we all have an obligation to do our part in supporting the eradication effort. That can — and should — begin with something as simple as recognizing the thousands of health workers and other people working tirelessly on the front lines to halt the outbreak and stop the suffering of thousands.
Today, Oct. 24, is United Nations Day. The observance — marking the anniversary of the U.N. charter, established in 1945 — may not always make it onto every calendar. Yet, as 2014 witnesses one of the most massive coordinated outbreak responses in our lifetime — a response to something WHO Director General Margaret Chan has called “likely the greatest peacetime challenge that the United Nations and its agencies have ever faced” — there has perhaps never been a more appropriate year to honor the working relationship between the U.S. and the U.N.
The U.N., working in partnership with governments and NGOs, is ultimately the only institution with the international scale, legitimacy, and capacity to lead on a global solution for such a crisis.
Since the first case of Ebola in West Africa was reported to the WHO six months ago, the U.N. General Assembly and the Security Council — under leadership from the U.S. government — have created the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response.
That is the right step for the U.N., and the right platform for the U.S. to utilize as it responds to the outbreak. UNMEER represents the first time in history that the U.N. has created a mission for a public health emergency. The mission brings together the resources of U.N. agencies, funds and programs to reinforce WHO’s technical expertise and experience in disease outbreaks.
The first-of-its-kind mission complements U.S. efforts effectively. As President Barack Obama has clearly defined containing the spread of the virus as a national security priority, the U.S. has so far contributed $113 million to the U.N. response in West Africa. That is in addition to sending as many as 4,000 troops to the region who will be responsible for setting up 17 field hospitals, each capable of holding 100 beds. Those hospitals will be staffed by civilian aid workers, many from USAID, but will also be dependent on U.N. workers to ensure their success.
With U.S. partnership in and support of U.N. efforts, progress is already underway. To date, UNMEER has deployed advance teams to all three of the intensely affected African nations.
Additionally, it has begun coordinated global airlifts to get needed supplies into the region. Further, it has drawn together the procurement capacities of the whole U.N. system, ensuring that resources can be comprehensively identified and distributed.
Additionally, working with partners, the WHO has constructed three Ebola treatment centers in Guinea, 12 in Liberia and 15 in Sierra Leone — 30 out of the 50 that are needed. These facilities contain more than 1,100 beds for people infected with Ebola, with an anticipated 2,500 beds coming available in the next month. WHO has also deployed more than 700 experts to West Africa since the beginning of the outbreak and helped set up “training academies” for local health workers.
While much more is needed, as WHO readily acknowledges, this is a solid foundation on which all partners can converge and coordinate.
The U.S. has a vested interest in stopping this deadly outbreak, but it cannot go it alone. Ebola is a global health threat and it requires a global solution. By working with the U.N., the U.S. can achieve progress in this epidemic.
This U.N. Day, Americans from Lewiston to Dallas to Washington, D.C., should raise their voices in support of the U.S.-U.N. partnership.
It is the best resource we have to navigate our way out of this crisis.
Tim Stretton of Lewiston is moderator of the Maine Chapter of the United Nations Association of the United States of America.