If the world doesn’t contain the spread of the Ebola virus soon, up to 1.4 million people could get infected. More than 3,000 people have died, virtually all in just three countries which have suffered enormous economic and political damage as a result.
The U.N. Security Council has declared the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa “a threat to international peace and security”—the first time the U.N. has taken this step in a public health crisis.
And now the disease has become a military problem. The United States—along with other countries and even NGOs—is now advocating a military deployment to counter the virus’ spread, because that’s the only solution left.
In the long run, though, the decision to “securitize” Ebola could have serious consequences in itself.
There is no question that Ebola represents a catastrophe on an apocalyptic scale for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the three countries that have been hit the worst.
In those countries, Ebola has outpaced HIV/AIDS, malaria and traffic accidents as the worst killer this year—and in Libera has claimed more lives than all of the three other categories combined. The mortality rate is comparable to that of the civil wars the region experienced just a decade ago, with similar stark consequences for economic and social life.
The World Bank estimates that Ebola will cause an economic slowdown of between 2.1 and 3.4 percent in the three countries this year. That corresponds to losses of around $355 million. And the situation will get even worse if authorities cannot contain the disease soon.
In the worst-case scenario—if Ebola continues to spread through the year 2015 and jumps to neighboring countries—economies in Sierra Leone and Liberia could substantially shrink, with serious consequences for the whole region. Some areas could even suffer famine, according to the World Health Organization.
In addition, there’s much talk about the risk that Ebola could pose to Western and Asian countries, a fear the U.N. resolution reflects. One of the top priorities, according to the Obama administration, is to “control the epidemic at its source in West Africa.”
To that end, the U.S. military has mobilized 3,000 troops and $750 million in defense funding to combat Ebola. Operation United Assistance, led by the Pentagon’s Africa Command, will set up a Joint Force Command in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.
The Americans will run a 25-bed hospital and Ebola Treatment Units, train up to 500 health workers per week and support the logistical effort of organizations like USAID and Doctors Without Borders, according to AFRICOM.
Unfortunately, the initiative comes very late in the crisis. Doctors Without Borders, which has battled Ebola since the epidemic’s discovery in Guinea in early 2014, warned early as June that the disease was spiraling “out of control.”
But neither the World Health Organization nor the international community took decisive action until late September. U.S. president Barack Obama announced his administration’s effort to stop Ebola on Sept. 16.
At that point, the only organization with the technical and logistical capability to do something about the continued spread of Ebola was the U.S. military—a fact that even Doctors Without Borders, no fan of military intervention, even acknowledged in an editorial.
The U.S. is not alone in looking for a military solution to the public health catastrophe that is Ebola. Germany has asked its military personnel to volunteer for duty in West Africa, and both France and Britain will send their own armed forces to help out.
Of course, Ebola isn’t really a threat to international peace and security. The context in which the virus has spread so rapidly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone is, in fact, quite special. Most countries are not so vulnerable.
All three countries are still emerging from disastrous political and military conflicts that have shattered their physical infrastructure and the basic trust between authorities and the population.
Ground zero of the disease is an area with very porous borders and a lot of trade, in combination with funeral practices that involve intensive contact with the deceased—an ideal vector for Ebola.
In comparison, Uganda was able to contain an outbreak very rapidly in 2012. Just 70 people died. Both Nigeria and Senegal saw Ebola cases “imported” from the other West African countries, but also managed to contain the virus.
And while it’s quite likely that the U.S. or Europe will see a case at some point in coming months, the conditions in those regions are optimal to isolate and treat Ebola patients quickly. Because Ebola spread only through direct contact with body fluids, it’s actually not that contagious in societies with good health care systems and sanitation.
Ideally, the Ebola countries themselves should have been better prepared. But Liberia and Sierra Leone recently ended devastating civil wars and Guinea has a history of political instability. All three countries struggle with corruption and government incompetence.
International organizations such as the World Health Organization should have expected—and been prepared for—Ebola to reemerge in the three states.
But instead of springing into action at the first sign of the virus, the whole international system—with the exception of a few laudable organizations including Doctors Without Borders—basically ignored the problem until it was too big for any solution other than full-scale military intervention.
Thousands of soldiers will go a long way toward containing the disease, but a purely civilian response—maybe supported by military cargo planes where necessary—would have had some big advantages.
Civilian intervention would have strengthened those individuals and organizations, both in West Africa and in the international community, that will have to deal with future public health emergencies—by providing money and establishing channels of communication.
There also would have been opportunities to strengthen local government capacity. It’s unlikely that AFRICOM will take orders from Liberian president Elle Johnson Sirleaf. A civilian intervention much earlier in the crisis would have required close coordination with the governments of afflicted states, thereby transferring skills and knowledge—not only to health workers, but also to bureaucracies.
Perhaps the worst outcome of the crisis would be a global assumption that military intervention is the first and best way to stop a disease like Ebola in Africa or elsewhere.
While there are certainly many military strategists who would welcome this new addition to their portfolios, a literal war on disease could seriously undermine efforts to prevent comparable epidemics in the future.
After all, sending in the military is usually a last resort. Effective disease-control should begin long before the disease makes international headlines. Long before the situation is bad enough for anyone to consider a virus a threat to world peace.