So others may live

Humanitarian workers understand the concept of taking risks in order to save lives and reduce suffering. Every year thousands of humanitarian workers provide important lifesaving services in conflict areas around the world. They do this, so others may live.

When operating in conflict areas, most humanitarian organizations follow strict security and safety precautions to reduce the risk of things going wrong and humanitarian workers getting injured or killed. Sadly every year, we lose colleagues who work in these difficult conditions.

Right now we are dealing with a new kind of humanitarian crisis, a pandemic outbreak. This “invisible threat” is much harder to avoid and deal with than people with guns. To address this, most organizations involved in the Ebola response have implemented strict procedures for limiting the potential of exposure to the virus.

For humanitarian workers not directly involved in patient care, the risks of exposure are low. Ebola does not spread through air, water, or food – so if you take precautions like avoiding physical contact and use alcohol based sanitizers like you were Howard Hughes, then you are very unlikely to get Ebola.

For those directly involved in patient care, much stricter protocols must be followed to limit exposure, including wearing very advanced personal protective equipment. Even with those strict protools in place, the risk is always there. Just like in every other emergency, it is the willingness of humanitarian workers to take a calculated risk that brings them into dangerous places.

In the words of Dr. Moses, a Liberian doctor working in one of it’s country’s Ebola Treatment Unit:

If we don’t treat them, then we are next.

Those involved in the response in the past couple of months, it has been difficult to see that every two weeks the number of infected in the region has doubled. Numerous experts have stated publicly that if we don’t take massive action right, then sadly this outbreak will get out of control.

Yet on the ground in the countries affected there is a big shortage of staff both in the front lines as well as in other areas of the response. In many cases this shortage is caused by the fact that organizations are not able to guarantee certain mitigation efforts that enable them to deploy staff to the region under manageable and acceptable risk conditions.

In particular, it is the “what if things go wrong” issue that is stopping organizations from deploying staff. If, even due to all the precautions, a staff member gets ill, will they be evacuated to a hospital where treatment capabilities are higher than in the field. Who will pay for that evacuation and the very expensive treatment required?

Some progress has been made within the European Union on committing funds towards medical evacuation costs, but national governments are expected to provide and fund the medical care required. Sadly a number of governments neither have the capacity or funds available to take care of such treatment.

Humanitarian workers deploying into the region, especially those working inside Ebola Treatment Units, must have clear commitments from their national governments that their decision to face the danger and help out, while taking all possible precautions must be rewarded by guarantees that if the worst case happens, they will receive the appropriate treatment and support.

We humanitarian workers must challenge governments to solve these issues immediately so dedicated, well trained humanitarian and health care workers can deploy to the region and win the battle against this pandemic outbreak.

Countries without ability to treat workers in their own country must get support from other countries that do have capabilities. Countries with ability to transport patients must help those that don’t.

Only through a collaborative, strategic, and combined effort of all countries and organizations can we gain the upper hand in this difficult battle. Otherwise, we are next.

Published October 13th 2014 at LinkedIn