Ebola - a disease of poverty
Recently, I visited Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia to better understand the needs of these countries as UNDP helps them deal with the Ebola crisis. In travelling from Conakry to Monrovia to Freetown, visiting communities and talking to government officials, including the Presidents of Guinea and Sierra Leone, and the Vice President of Liberia, I have seen that Ebola is now testing every aspect of the social fabric.
Ebola is shaking institutions and challenging leaders, civilians and medical experts alike. It is undermining the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and exacerbating poverty and inequality. Everywhere this disease strikes, it is the poorest, living their difficult and deprived lives in Africa’s slums – often among animals, garbage and fumes – who are most vulnerable to this disease.
Many of the political leaders I met during this trip cited poverty as the cause of the disease’s spread, and economic recovery as the most pressing need for a long term solution, together with the emergency response to the epidemic.
This message will be repeated today in Washington, at the Global South-South Development Expo. There, people from across the globe will discuss poverty eradication with a special focus on responding to Ebola as a development crisis, highlighting the link between poverty and health. They will share experiences, analyze challenges and seek opportunities in deploying integrated responses for poverty reduction, management and recovery from an outbreak of an epidemic, such as Ebola. This couldn’t be more timely.
The people doing this work in affected countries are already achieving impressive results. In Conakry I saw young UN volunteers recruited from their communities, who are working fearlessly in the slums, demonstrating in their neighbourhoods how to wash hands and sterilize drinking water. I met policemen and women who are being trained by UNDP to become community activists and raise awareness about the disease, which was a humbling experience because it underlined the challenges faced by first responders in these countries.
In Sierra Leone we witnessed firsthand how UNDP and UNICEF have started radio classrooms for children whose school year has been suspended, and how UNDP has helped establish a situation room, where the government is able to direct its efforts to protect the extremely vulnerable and marginalized populations.
UNDP is working to identify and trace people with Ebola; ensure payments to Ebola workers and support livelihoods for those affected by the disease; help with the economic recovery; and assist with social mobilization and community engagement.
The response isn’t all about ambulances, hazmat suits and hand washing. More must be done to conquer poverty and address some of the underlying issues that caused this terrible outbreak in the first place. UNDP will continue to respond – addressing these issues through a multi-faceted approach even after the current crisis is over.