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Ebola hell in Liberia.

By Jacinta Fay and Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor.

Liberians are haunted by the sights they now see on their streets. Dead bodies await ambulances. Soldiers patrol in combat-ready gear. Every Liberian has been impacted by the Ebola epidemic. In three to six months the epidemic may be under control but the crisis has affected every facet of society. Children are not attending school. Farms have been abandoned. Whole villages and families have been wiped out. Infrastructure projects have ground to a halt. The social and psychological scars will be deep and long lasting.

The epidemic has prompted multiple crises. Liberia was already extremely food insecure. It is now cut off from the outside world on which it relies for 60% of its food. Hunger and malnutrition are rising. People are dying from easily preventable and treatable diseases like malaria and diarrhoea as access to healthcare collapses. Women are dying in childbirth. Women and girls, as primary caregivers, are suffering some of the worst impacts. Fear and panic have sparked a myriad of security issues. The future death toll can only be imagined from this multiplicity of crises.

In the region the total number of Ebola related deaths has reached an estimated 4,922 and the number of cases has reached an estimated 10,141. Official numbers probably need to be multiplied by two to three times to account for unreported cases. Liberia has been particularly hard hit with the highest official death toll of 2,705 as of October 25th. $294 million has been earmarked in emergency aid for Liberia. However, according to current estimations, $473 million is required.

While pledges of assistance have been committed, their delivery remains slow. Pledges and action are two very different things when it comes to emergency aid. The Guardian Ebola funding tracker (as of 29th October) gives an insight into the problem. Countries have pledged $1.22 billion but only disbursed $569.79 million, multilaterial organisations have pledged $442.53 million but only disbursed $257.41 million, and NGOs have pledged $142.59 million but only disbursed $49.87 million.

Immediate action on funding commitments and improved coordination between the actors involved in responding to the Ebola epidemic are urgently required. More medical staff and resources are needed immediately. Flights must be allowed into and out of Ebola affected countries to ensure that people are able to travel and supplies are delivered. Security measure being taken in the countries must respect human rights and humanitarian concerns.

There are already many lessons to learn from the crisis particularly regarding the inadequate international response. The international community failed to invest in research for a cure for the virus. Only now that there is an international market are the pharmaceutical companies queuing up to conduct trials. The World Health Organisation (WHO) failed in downplaying the outbreak and only declaring an international public health emergency in August after there had been almost a thousand deaths.

Governments and international agencies around the world failed to mobilise the necessary support and resources to tackle the epidemic before it became a humanitarian crisis. The media failed with its irresponsible reporting of the epidemic. This has fuelled panic about the spread of Ebola to Europe and North America and perpetuated negative stereotypes about people from west Africa, rather than calling for international assistance to tackle the crisis. Superstition, myths and ignorance are blamed for the spread of the virus whereas the problem is dysfunctional health systems, limited technical and financial capacity of Governments, and the inadequate response of the international community.

The Irish Government must increase its support for the response to the Ebola epidemic. This currently stands at 2.5 million Euro and a further 660,000 Euro through UNICEF. Further funding should be provided for medical charities and sending medical personnel. Direct funding to Liberian civil society organisations and their community support programmes should be increased. These groups are to the forefront in equipping communities to protect themselves from the virus and need support to scale up this work. After the immediate crisis a new reconstruction programme will need to begin and Ireland should be to the forefront in this. •

Jacinta Fay is a member of the Liberia Solidarity Group and Landgrab Campaigner with Friends of the Earth International. Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor is the founder and Lead Campaigner with the Sustainable Development Institute/Friends of the Earth Liberia.