Defense and Disease: Policy Implications of the Ebola Outbreak

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by Stephanie Linares

ebolaPresident Obama’s decision to send U.S. troops to help combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa – while welcomed by many in the medical and public health community – stems from the administration’s designation of Ebola as a “national security threat.” The deployment of these troops marks not only the largest humanitarian aid mission since the U.S. response to the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, but is part of an unprecedented surge in global efforts to combat a public health crisis that threatens both the economic and hard security of critical regions.

The current Ebola outbreak is the deadliest in recorded history, both in terms of the number of people who have been infected and in geographic scope. Eight countries are currently affected: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are seeing widespread transmission, while Nigeria, Senegal, Spain and the U.S. are seeing localized transmission. There is also separate outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to the World Health Organization, the outbreak has infected more than 5,500 people and killed more than 2,500. In what the White House has dubbed Operation United Assistance, up to $750 million and 3,200 U.S. military personnel will be committed to the crisis, targeting Ebola in West Africa.

Although the spread of the disease is a severe public health crisis, the security implications of the outbreak are equally daunting. A continuing outbreak of the Ebola virus could have serious effects on the already-fragile economies of West Africa, which in turn would directly and negatively affect the security of countries in the region. Even if the Ebola virus can be contained to currently-affected nations, the implications of weakened economies and diminished security will spread beyond West Africa, largely in the form of disrupted trade.  According to the World Bank, Liberia’s most important agricultural export, rubber, has been severely disrupted by reduced workforce mobility and transport restrictions due to quarantine. Rubber exports initially expected to be about $148 million in 2014 are estimated to drop 20 percent. Palm oil, another product of Liberia, is also being affected.

Obama, in his address from the Centers for Disease Control headquarters in Atlanta, stated that “this is an epidemic that is not just a threat to regional security — it’s a potential threat to global security if these countries break down, if their economies break down, if people panic. That has profound effects on all of us, even if we are not directly contracting the disease.” UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, in his address to the UN Security Council session on the Ebola Virus – only the second disease-focused gathering in the body’s history – highlighted the security, economic and humanitarian dimensions of the crisis in the region, calling for anunprecedented level of international action to combat it. As a prime example of unprecedented action, Doctors Without Borders, a traditionally pacifist, neutral, humanitarian organization, for the first time in its history made a request for U.S. military support, surprising even the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

The classification of a disease as a security threat is not unique to Ebola. In the past 15 years, diseases have increasingly been categorized and formally incorporated into national security strategies. Stefan Elbe, a professor of international relations at the University of Sussex, pointed out that the year 2000 marked a fundamental shift toward the “securitization of disease,” when the UN Security Council made the unprecedented to convene a meeting to address the out-of-control HIV/AIDS pandemic in January of that year. In 2005, the H5N1 flu was declared a security threat by President George W. Bush and resulted in the declaration of the U.S.’ first pandemic preparedness plan, with other nations creating similar plans.

The challenges for Western aid and cooperation are immense.  Simon Rushton, a researcher in global politics of health at the University of Sheffield, says that the current situation is theconsequence of a long-term failure to help countries develop their own health systems,” maintaining that the outbreak could have been contained had these nations possessed adequate systems. Local public health systems in many of the affected nations are very weak and ineffective, or even non-existent in many places. Complicating matters further are a lack of basic infrastructure, roads and structures necessary for emergency preparedness planning. Harmful beliefs and misinformation about the disease in local communities, and low literacy levels, prevent the spread of accurate information on how to prevent infection. Rampant ethnic, political and religious divisions add a further level of complications.

With the advent of globalization and the increased potential for diseases to spread internationally, a virus can come to threaten trade and economic stability in critical regions, expanding the list of national security threats. With the U.S. taking the lead in addressing the crisis, several other Western nations have been contemplating taking on a larger role in the crisis. The EU, while active in assisting with the outbreak and providing financial aid, should assume a more united and active role in mitigating the crisis. Indeed, several members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have urged the EU to take on a three-fold approach.  First, coordinate with all international partners, particularly the U.S., via a joint effort through the UN as the most appropriate forum. Second, deliver the promised financial support (the EU has pledged $230 million and individual European states have committed $255 million) as soon as possible. Third, the EU must offer further support to the African Union in drawing up a feasible action plan to deal with the political, economic and hard security implications of the outbreak.

Stephanie Linares is a transatlantic security analyst at the Streit Council. Photo credit: U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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