Ebola one year on: Why did the world care so much?

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891270_e431a60202f63f66e5fb7b80d410d217Ebola one year on: Why did the world care so much?

A year after the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak was declared a public health emergency of international concern, [1] the outbreak is still ongoing and deaths and mini flare-ups are expected to continue for some time. [2] 11,193 people are suspected or confirmed to have perished from EVD; with that figure still expected to rise. Liberia once considered Ebola free, has had a return of the virus. Sierra Leone and Guinea continue to face new cases with optimistic efforts hoping for an end to Ebola in Guinea in October 2015. [3]

Although a concerted effort from the international community was notoriously late in coming, by September of 2014 it was clear that the world was beginning to see Ebola as a major international emergency requiring a major international response. [4]

This high-level of international attention has generally been seen as a result of the fact that Western states began to worry about Ebola reaching their shores. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)’s President Dr. Joanne Liu, for example, stated in a report one year into the EVD outbreak that it only became of international concern when the emergency threatened international security and was no longer just a humanitarian crisis. [5]

However, I argue in this post, based on an analysis of speeches made by high-level political leaders during the busy month of September 2014 that these speeches suggest that whilst security concerns were present, they were not the only reason EVD came to matter to the world.

It’s true that the rhetoric used in speeches in September 2014 did contain all the hallmarks of the language of security that has been seen around previous disease outbreaks. [6][7] There were many references to extraordinary times and extraordinary measures, and the need to safeguard peace and security in relation to the threat from the EVD.[8][9] Many speakers, including both US Ambassador Power and UK Ambassador Grant, identified Ebola as an international security threat at the UN on September 18th, 2014. [10][11] The UN Security Council then went on to declare Ebola a threat to international peace and security; the first disease to be formally declared as such.

However, reducing the reason why the EVD outbreak matters to the world, to purely one of security narrows the motivations for the response as being driven by self-concern and ignores the other frames used to generate international political will.

From the September 2014 speeches, political leaders can be seen to appeal to a shared global responsibility to tackle Ebola, which went beyond a narrow understanding of self-interest.  US President Obama argued that in containing the EVD outbreak it is important “every nation and every organization does its part. And everyone has to do more.” and Dr. Liu of MSF urged the UN that “It is your historic responsibility to act.” [12][13]

Why Ebola matters to the world could cynically be argued to relate to their legal responsibilities under the International Health Regulations. As states are required to provide disease surveillance, prevention, response and control domestically; the cost of which would rise substantially during an EVD pandemic and containing the outbreak early would reduce their economic costs. While the September 2014 speeches often reference economic concerns the idea of responsibility extends further than literal legal responsibilities or economic responsibilities. [14][15][16]

The sense that the international community had a responsibility to act can be seen to drive the response with UK Ambassador Grant at the UN stating “It is crucial that the international community works together” he then calls for a “Global Coalition against Ebola” with US Ambassador Power saying “The United Nations was built for global challenges like this.” [17][18]

The unanimity UN Security Council Resolution 2177 received (with 134 co-sponsors, the highest number a Security Council resolution has ever received) demonstrates the EVD outbreak mattered to the international community. Who saw a shared responsibility for containing the outbreak. This level of unanimity suggests a shared understanding that no country could defeat the EVD alone and that responsibility could not rest solely with the affected countries.

Speeches from September 2014 by the political leaders often include emotive language, an Aristotelian Pathos, which appeal to audience’s emotion and seeks to encourage sympathy and empathy. Speaking at the Security Council’s session on Ebola, MSF team leader Naimah told Council Members; people  “die alone, terrified, and without their loved ones at their side.” and President Obama describes Ebola as “wiping out whole families.” [19] [20]

EVD matters to the world as it creates a rift in humanity where normal relations between loved ones are jeopardised through fear of transmission. The way in which it afflicts those caring for those suffering with the disease has an especially powerful psychological effect. Compassion for others strengthened the response to the outbreak, and the use of the human story and personalization of those affected in the September 2014 speeches supports this.

The speeches delivered in September 2014 provide a fascinating insight into the way in which the EVD was presented and understood as being of importance to the world. The security implications are ingrained in the discourse, but to attribute the international response to only being the result of EVD’s threat to international peace and security ignores the shared sense of responsibility being a part of the international community brings. It also backgrounds the altruism and compassion felt for others on a human level, which also helped drive the response from governments and individuals around the world.

Written by Adam, Second Year Politics Student at the University of Sheffield 2015/16
[1] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/statements/2014/ebola-20140808/en/

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/jul/06/ebola-un-special-envoy-liberia-flare-ups-david-nabarro

[3] http://time.com/3949334/ebola-outbreak-msf-guinea/

[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/ebola-virus-the-transcript-of-barack-obamas-speech-to-the-un-9756272.html

[5] http://issuu.com/545309/docs/msf1yearebolareport_pushed_to_the_l

[6] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2953285.stm

[7] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8125191.stm

[8] http://www.sierra-leone.org/Speeches/koroma-091814.html

[9] http://www.unmultimedia.org/radio/english/2014/09/suffering-and-spill-over-effects-of-ebola-demands-global-attention-ban/

[10] usun.state.gov/briefing/statements/231829.htm

[11] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-current-ebola-epidemic-has-become-a-humanitarian-social-and-economic-crisis

[12] www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/ebola-virus-the-transcript-of-barack-obamas-speech-to-the-un-9756272.html

[13] http://www.cfr.org/public-health-threats-and-pandemics/remarks-medecins-sans-frontieres-international-president-un-special-briefing-ebola/p33460

[14] http://www.un.org/sg/statements/index.asp?nid=7999

[15] https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/25/remarks-president-obama-un-meeting-ebola

[16] http://www.cfr.org/public-health-threats-and-pandemics/remarks-medecins-sans-frontieres-international-president-un-special-briefing-ebola/p33460

[17] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-current-ebola-epidemic-has-become-a-humanitarian-social-and-economic-crisis

[18] http://usun.state.gov/briefing/statements/231829.htm

[19] http://www.msf.org/article/msf-addresses-un-security-council-emergency-session-ebola

[20] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/ebola-virus-the-transcript-of-barack-obamas-speech-to-the-un-9756272.html