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INTERVIEW: Senior UN relief official warns no room for complacency until Ebola is eliminated

6 February 2015 – Having recently visited the West African countries worst-affected by the current Ebola crisis, John Ging, Operations Director of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), returned feeling confident that the outbreak can be completely eliminated, the humanitarian situation addressed and the countries’ resilience to future outbreaks boosted.

This week, the UN News Centre met with Mr. Ging, a veteran UN relief official, and asked him about his trip to the hardest-hit countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – and his hopes and plans for the next phase of the Ebola response.

UN News Centre: What can you tell us about youThere’s a heroic effort going on, superb leadership – at the community level, at the national level and also in the international engagement.r recent trip to West Africa?

John Ging: Well, as you might expect, it’s been something that has impressed me. The scale, of course, of this crisis is unprecedented, with, 22,000 people across three countries affected by the virus and over 9,000 dying tragically. But of course, [there is] also this dimension of fear because there is no cure although a lot of people have survived, and also how contagious it is, how rapidly it spreads.

Now, what has impressed me is the degree of community mobilization in the face of this massive tragedy. It’s been incredible to see how communities have faced this fear and actually overcome it. There’s been very impressive international engagement, heroic international staff in so many international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), also public servants who have gone out there, medical workers, and military being deployed, by the United States and the United Kingdom in particular. All on the front line.

In Ebola-affected Guinea, children, supervised by an adult, play outdoors in a large circle in the village of Meliandou in Guéckédou Prefecture, Nzérékoré Region. Photo: UNICEF/Mark Naftalin

This endeavour has been a team effort – locally, nationally and internationally. And thankfully, now, the crisis has been turned from Ebola having the initiative and being out of control to the international and national endeavour having the initiative and working towards the elimination of the crisis.

UN News Centre: And going forward, OCHA’s about to deploy Emergency Response Teams. What can you tell us about that?

John Ging: Well, OCHA has deployed over 166 staff in this crisis, so we’ve been there throughout but we have been integrated in UNMEER (the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response) for example and also in support of the resident coordinators in each of the countries. We now look at the situation, of course, as in transition from the immediate effort to combat the advance of Ebola, to the next phase, which is the elimination of Ebola…the hardest mile, I might add, in that effort. It’s very tough, so [there’s] no room for complacency.

But for us on the OCHA side, there are other humanitarian consequences that are now falling out from this crisis: 10,000 orphans; the stigmatization of Ebola survivors and their psychosocial and physical issues; kids are all out of school for again the past year almost. It’s livelihoods…the people who have died are predominantly those who are family breadwinners. There’s a lot of humanitarian consequences at the grassroots level. The health systems have collapsed in the face of this crisis. They were very weak to begin with. Health workers are the ones that have been most exposed and sadly and tragically, hundreds have died.

Highly contaminated waste is removed from an Ebola Treatment Unit and carried with caution to a disposal area, where it will be fed into an incinerator that burns it into ashes. Photo: WHO/R. Sørensen

So there’s a massive recovery here that is required, and on the OCHA side, we have to play our role in supporting our humanitarian partners, international NGOs, and UN agencies in the next phase of this endeavour.

UN News Centre: Can you tell us a little more about the wider humanitarian situation in the affected countries?

John Ging: Well, the first impact of course is on the families themselves [as] most of the people who’ve lost their lives are in the category of being the breadwinner for families. Now, those families are very vulnerable because they have lost their source of income. We also have a situation where survivors – the orphans – some 10,000 children, have lost one or both parents. Also, the delivery of basic public services in healthcare and education and other services have basically been overrun by the consequences of this crisis.

So, medical centres are not functioning. They all have to be re-established. Schools have been closed. They have to be re-opened. There’s a huge amount of work to do at the community level – humanitarian work to help people to recover, in terms of their health, education, and livelihood support. And that’s where we on the OCHA side want to work and support our partners in helping with the things that we do around coordination, fundraising and international advocacy.

After being kept closed for three months due to the Ebola outbreak, schools across Guinea reopened on 19 January 2015. Photo: UNMEER/Martine Perret

UN News Centre: Earlier you mentioned that there is “no room for complacency.” What exactly do you mean by complacency? What are we trying to avoid?

John Ging: Well, the fight against Ebola has been going on now for over a year. It’s been at a heightened pace of response for the last six months or so, but the first case broke out in Guinea in December 2013, so the communities have been living with this and aid workers on the front line have been fighting this for well over a year. And one can understand that there’s exhaustion. There’s exhaustion mentally and also physically at the community level. They wish it was over; they wish they could get back to their normal lives. There’s exhaustion also among aid workers, who have been on the front lines for so long.

But we have to make sure that we are giving the international support needed to conclude this fight, because if there is any complacency now, then this virus will come back very quickly. We have seen that. We’ve seen how powerful it is in terms of its ability to spread quickly and infect very large numbers of people. It does not respect borders. So there has to be a lot of effort now in this phase towards elimination, to get to zero cases in all of the affected countries – following through on, first and foremost, keeping the communities motivated.

Two women in Monrovia, Liberia, walk in front of a billboard, which says “Ebola must go. Stopping Ebola is Everybody’s Business.” Photo: UNMIL/Emmanuel Tobey

They’re the key. People identifying when they’re sick…coming forward for treatment. Therefore, they’re protecting their families but they’re also increasing their chances of surviving. That’s also important in our messaging – survival is possible. Thousands have survived. Early detection, early treatment, that’s the key to survival. And then, of course, that we’re providing support for them in treatment and also for their families. It’s also important that communities are not allowed to lose hope. And that’s where we need tangible support around the other issues – livelihood support, public services, healthcare, education, and so forth. This will ensure that people feel international solidarity is not just with them for the fight against Ebola, but with them in the recovery effort as well.

UN News Centre: This week, we have seen a spike in the numbers of Ebola cases. What does that mean for the response?

John Ging: What it means is that’s the reality of the fight against this virus. This virus is not going to give up easily and if anyone wants evidence against complacency, then there [it is]. People are working day and night, around the clock and yet this was not a good week. But hopefully, next week will be a better week because when one looks back over the last months, one can have confidence. There’s a heroic effort going on, superb leadership – at the community level, at the national level and also in the international engagement. It’s effective, and again, if it continues to get the support in resources, [the response effort] will succeed. But again, the message out there from everybody is ‘no room for complacency.’ Success is not achieved until Ebola is eliminated.

UN News Centre: Once eliminated, once we reach zero cases, how do we stay there?

John Ging: This is where the development of the healthcare systems is key, and also having the capacity to respond much more quickly and much more effectively if there is another outbreak. You know, there are countries like the Congo where it’s endemic, but outbreaks do not result in a catastrophe. They are managed because people know what to do and there is the competence to deal with it.

I do feel, of course, that communities have been very sensitized to the dangers of this virus in West Africa so there is a high level of awareness. But then, [we must ask] is the medical system capable to actually deal with that? So, there must be a legacy here of our engagement; that we have helped to capacitate the medical systems in these countries so that if they face new cases in the future, they will have the response capacity to quickly contain the outbreak and bring it back to zero.

In addition of course, we also need to realize that the wider healthcare system is key, because this region [is] malaria endemic and the symptoms are very common, in the initial phase, between malaria and Ebola. So you need very competent health workers [that remain] vigilant at all times. And that’s why we’ve been saying that part of the recovery and the legacy of this outbreak has to be that we build back better in support of the communities and the countries themselves, particularly on the healthcare side.

Daily life in Freetown, Sierra Leone, one of three West African countries most affected by the outbreak of the Ebola virus. Photo: World Bank/Dominic Chavez

UN News Centre: What specifically is OCHA’s focus going forward?

John Ging: Well, OCHA’s focus is, as it is everywhere, [to] support humanitarian organizations in three principle functions. One is on the information side. We are facilitating the information because our partners need to know what the situation is…who’s doing what [and] where, to avoid overlap and duplication. And also to generate effective advocacy around the response that is needed. The second thing we do is we facilitate operational coordination, bringing people together so again, that we can help support the best focused [response] in efficiency and effectiveness.

And finally, in humanitarian financing – the fundraising dimension to all this. OCHA manages the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), also launches the global appeals for our humanitarian partners and we see that as something that is going to be very important moving forward – that we continue to be able to generate the international engagement…the generosity of our Member States – to help these people who have been so devastated by this crisis to recover. And it is possible in the short-term to actually support a recovery here, so it’s an investment that’s worth making. The people [in the affected region] most definitely deserve our support.