The Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) has been rampant in West Africa for months, and as of October 29, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported a total of 13,703 cases and 4,922 deaths worldwide. Only 12 deaths have occurred outside of the three most seriously affected countries—Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. The outbreak has so crippled these countries that some have warned that Ebola may cause states to collapse in West Africa, an area already devastated by decades of civil war and weak governance.
Many have attributed the absence of a timely international response to the scale of the Ebola outbreak. Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan blamed the lagging international efforts in helping the West African countries to contain the deadly disease. While visiting the hardest-hit African nations, U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power criticized the lackluster resolve of many nations to deliver help. These criticism make sense, since a forceful and quick international response could have prevented EVD from claiming so many victims. The barely-functioning public health systems in these countries are clearly incapable of containing EVD, and many countries have the potential to provide more urgently-needed medical supplies.
However, criticizing the imperfect international response misses the core of the problem. There should have been no expectation in the first place that the international community could have successfully nipped EVD in the bud. Since many West African countries lack an epidemic early-warning system and an adequate public health system to provide care to its public, EVD was able to spread rapidly. Unlike for other humanitarian crises like earthquakes or tsunamis, the world is unlikely to have first-hand knowledge of an outbreak of disease. The current EVD outbreak, for example, started as early as March, but did not attract international attention until early summer. This should not be surprising given that Africa frequently experiences limited outbreaks of other diseases that are mainly local and easier to contain. One could have easily expected in March that the EVD outbreak would be of a similar nature.
Moreover, the incompetent governments of these nations and their poorly-educated public are the main reasons why EVD has become so widespread. In Sierra Leone, valuable international aid remained in ship containers for months because custom officials did not receive bribes. As late as this summer, many people did not even believe in Ebola. There were conspiracy theories that the government invented the EVD outbreak out of thin air to gain international aid.
Popular practices of eating bushmeat—bats, monkeys, and other primates—provide huge health risks since these animals carry many deadly viruses. Lack of law-enforcement and poor hygiene in food markets only heighten the risks. HIV, for instance, first infected human bodies when a chimpanzee was killed and eaten. If bushmeat continues to be a diet option for the local population, it is just a matter of time before a new deadly disease emerges. How, exactly, is the international community supposed to help countries in which people don’t even acknowledge the cause of the problem?
The best the international community can do is react as quickly and effectively as possible. In the absence of an early-warning system in Africa, the notion of outbreak prevention is a myth. The heart of the problem lies in local governance, not in the indifference of the international community.