Ebola highlights pace of “interconnectedness,” role of leadership, and what happens when one moves faster than the other

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kerryfidforumIn remarks last week at the United States Agency for International Development’s 2014 Frontiers in Development Forum, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted what he referred to as both “new opportunities,” and “new challenges,” of interconnnectedness, and “a hyperconnected world.” Challenges, he noted, are exemplified by the ongoing, still escalating Ebola crisis in West Africa. At the same time, he added, that public health disaster, as well as others, also highlight the essential, irreplaceable role of leadership. While these are well established truths — the connections, as well as the needs — that infectious disease epidemics can put in stark relief, events show once again that responses often follow, rather than precede the point at which an outbreak has exploded beyond ready controls.

Recent news on the current Ebola outbreak, following President Obama’s announcement of an accelerated response last week, and the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council’s approvals of resolutions creating the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, six months after the first case of the swiftly spreading disease was reported, are cases in point. In the meantime, while West Africa, and the nonprofit organization volunteers, particularly at Médecins Sans Frontières who responded first, waited for what might be called “followership,” an article in the Economist, Chasing a rolling snowball, describes what happens when a fast-moving epidemic raises challenges in a world already struggling with belated responses to HIV and tuberculosis epidemics. In cities and unplanned urban settlements around them, the numbers of those infected is doubling as swiftly as every two weeks. As that happens, the cost of containing the spread, the article notes, grows at the same rate. The article also notes that one of the greatest needs is also quite basic, and  “frankly, cheap,” — gloves, gowns, masks and disinfectant to protect health workers.

“I wake up each morning, wondering  . . . if it is a horror movie,” An MSF worker wrote in a Guardian article published a couple of weeks ago. That line is quoted in an IRIN news article Turning away the Ebola Dying, which tells why last week’s announcement that 3,000 troops were on the way was welcomed by exhausted health workers on the ground, but why they still face hard to surmount challenges — including health workers with no health insurance in the event the disease spreads to their family members. In the same week, Cocoa Prices Surge on Ebola Fears gave a glimpse of how disease can have as rippling and destabilizing an economic impact as warfare.

Near the end of his speech last week, Kerry summed it up, after retelling advances against HIV, and inequities among those advances: “The world watches us, but I am telling you this: The world will not wait for us.”

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