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People pass a banner reading “STOP EBOLA” in the city of Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Friday. (Aurélie Marrier d'Unienville/AP)
People pass a banner reading “STOP EBOLA” in the city of Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Friday. (Aurélie Marrier d'Unienville/AP)

Globe editorial

The Ebola crisis taught us lessons, but will we learn from them? Add to ...

A global health crisis is a cruel but powerful educator – at least for those who are willing to learn from past mistakes.

The World Health Organization has finally announced an end to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, after two years and more than 11,000 deaths. When a local outbreak can last so long, cost so many lives and sow panic worldwide, it’s clear that the systems in place for detecting and responding to the virus were wholly inadequate.

Experts who study infectious diseases all agree that the world faces another deadly epidemic on the same scale as Ebola, with the same potential to breed extremes of fear and confusion that end up being as destructive as the virus itself.

It is therefore essential to strengthen the capacity of the WHO to act quickly and independently in identifying and combatting viral outbreaks, without the kind of hesitation that slowed the response in 2014. The undue political sensitivity that the UN’s public-health agency displayed in its reluctance to declare an Ebola outbreak, fearing it would antagonize local political leaders who wanted to downplay its dangers, proved all too deadly.

Budget cuts may have decimated the WHO, but its inadequate preparedness for an outbreak that didn’t fit the expected norms, and its bureaucratic lack of urgency in galvanizing an emergency response at the very moment when it could have made a dramatic difference, were fatal flaws that cannot be repeated.

The search for affordable vaccines and treatments must go on, but in the world of infectious diseases there is no substitute for ground-level vigilance and surveillance. The prime reason why the Ebola epidemic was so deadly was that the fragile health-care systems in the affected regions, already weakened by years of civil war and societal breakdown, were overwhelmed in their ability to treat the disease and limit its spread.

Viruses will thrive in broken societies. While the UN, its agencies and member governments are limited in their ability to impose the kind of peaceful, orderly conditions that are the best guarantors of a healthy life, they can do a much better job of building the capacities of local hospitals and health systems to better anticipate an outbreak and survive its onslaught. This will take money and a long-term commitment, and it will be worth it.

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