For the first time in Center for Disaster Philanthropy history, last week we classified a pandemic disease as a disaster and launched the CDP Ebola Action Fund to assist in meeting the needs associated with this crisis. The Ebola outbreak has been forced to compete with other major world events for headline attention, but without a doubt, this crisis deserves a coordinated response from the philanthropic community in the form of financial support, assistance to international non-governmental organizations, and careful consideration of the long-term implications of diseases as disasters.
The Ebola virus outbreak is a disaster – thousands have died, thousands more are infected, still thousands more than those who are sick are affected. Leaders in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have declared a state of emergency, and there has been a call by world leaders for humanitarian assistance. Without immediate response, followed by sustained support, the virus will continue to spiral out of control in enormous proportions.
I have had the opportunity speak with field representatives from several international non-governmental organizations responding to this crisis, and I know that they, too, look at this event as a major disaster. Here are some key takeaways from those conversations:
- There have been about 6,000 confirmed cases and at least 3,000 confirmed deaths in Western Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) always caveats their numbers with the note that it is estimated that actual cases are two to four times the number of confirmed cases.
- The Ebola outbreak is one of the worst crises in recent years, comparable only to Syria in terms of scope and continuing severity. The two crises are alike in that humanitarian responses have been slow following the initial onset, and have grown exponentially as time has passed. To put this into perspective for you, in the ongoing Syria crisis, an average of at least 3,300 people were killed every month (this is an average of confirmed deaths over the entire conflict during the past four years, not the actual number, and not reflective of the ebb and flow of the crisis there). The Ebola outbreak is on pace to match that, and new projections from the WHO and the Center for Disease Control estimate that the virus will infect 20,000 by the end of November and possibly 1.5 million people by early next year.
- This is not a time to assume that because government agencies are responding, private organizations can focus attention elsewhere. Time and again, I have heard NGOs on the ground say that both government and private responses are needed to contain the outbreak.
The key needs in the Ebola outbreak are numerous, and can be outlined in three categories: immediate, mid-term, and long-term. Some of the most immediate needs and concerns are:
- Appropriately trained medical professionals
- Training for local medical staff
- Isolation and treatment centers
- Mobile laboratories
- An increased ability to move medical personnel and supplies in, out, and around affected areas
- Increased capacity in local health systems to address both Ebola virus and routine medical care needs
- Personal protective equipment for health workers
- Appropriate waste disposal and burial strategies
- Other diseases, such as malaria, are not being treated by health facilities, in part because of the strain on workers, and in part because people aren’t going to the centers
- Local panic over food and necessities supply, due to quarantines and curfews
The private philanthropic community is uniquely positioned to fill the gaps left by government responses in each of these areas. Government assistance, including the most recent military support is not enough to address and contain this crisis. Containing the virus is an immediate need, but there will be significant mid- to long-term needs that follow on once the outbreak is slowed. Regardless of what your preference is in disaster giving, there are plenty of needs to be met in this crisis.
The implications for ignoring the Ebola outbreak are huge. There are the obvious ones, such more deaths, increased number of nations affected, and a long-term health problem that has already gone on too long. If we do not strengthen our world health systems, in the long-term we also risk larger, more severe pandemic diseases. We would be foolish to assume that a health pandemic would never occur in the U.S., that pandemics occurring elsewhere in the world will not impact our daily lives, or that future outbreaks will be less severe than this current situation. The truth is that future outbreaks will likely be more severe, that a pandemic of such magnitude could occur in the U.S., and that our daily lives are affected frequently already by events around the world. While the U.S. is more prepared than many nations for such an event, we are not as prepared as we could be.