US Ambassador to UN Samantha Power compared the Ebola outbreak in Africa to the Irish Famine.Reuters

The US Ambassador to the UN, Irish-born Samantha Power, has drawn a strong link between Ebola suffering in west African villages and what the Irish endured during the Great Hunger. 

Power was speaking at the GOAL charity ball in Manhattan.

Founded in Dublin in 1977, GOAL is an international humanitarian agency of first responders who operate in 14 countries including those struck by Ebola. Power, who was born in Dublin, began and ended her speech drawing a parallel between the virus and Ireland’s Great Hunger. She read an excerpt from an 1847 news story by Cork journalist James Mahoney about a dismal scene he’d witnessed upon arriving in Bridgetown, Co. Wexford: “not a single house could boast of being free from death and fever.” 

“Now this could have been written today about a village or neighborhood in one of the countries most affected by the Ebola outbreak,” Power said. “I begin here because, while GOAL is an international humanitarian organization, it is also an Irish organization. 

“I begin with the snapshot of the famine because it is impossible to understand the proud tradition of Ireland’s generosity, or the passion for service that drives the ‘GOALies’ in the field without understanding the history of the Irish people…empathy is in your bloodstream. It’s in your genes.” 

Despite the growing international awareness about the existence of Ebola and its severity, Power said the world is still unfortunately far behind the virus’ curve. Her message was clear: though it’s an uphill battle, the world has everything we need to curb and eventually cease the spread of the virus.  

“One of the most heartbreaking facts about the Famine is that up to a million lives could have been saved. Food was being exported from Ireland as people starved,” Power said. She referred to an 1846 description by a relief inspector in which an Irish mother with a dead child in her arms lay begging on the street, right beside a market with a bountiful supply. 

“While they may not be around the corner in a market, we can get the necessary supplies to the affected communities. We can build the Ebola treatment centers; we can supply the beds, train the nurses, and manufacture protective gear so that nursing people back to health is not itself a perilous endeavor.” 

However, she made clear that what is needed to stop Ebola goes beyond the physical materials – that knowledge is the greatest power. She gave two examples from Kenema, a district in Sierra Leone where GOAL first responders had witnessed an alarming lack of knowledge about the virus, serving fatal consequences. 

“According to Sierra Leone’s health ministry, 429 cases of Ebola had been confirmed in Kenema by October 1 - and more than 20 health care workers in the district lost their lives treating waves of patients at Kenema’s hospital.” 

Police had difficulty maintaining the quarantine areas, which resulted in numerous police deaths. She quoted one of the GOAL workers: “In some cases, police officers can be found sitting on the terrace of a quarantined house, eating food that the family has cooked. In other cases, quarantined individuals may be permitted to fetch water or go to the market, because as long as they do not run away, the quarantine is being observed in the eyes of the police.” 

Since GOAL’s intervention in Kenema, the quality of quarantines improved dramatically, and since properly training over 2,400 police officers (who then trained more police officers) on how to interact with Ebola patients, no further police deaths occurred. 

“GOAL developed a training module that balanced the need to prevent Ebola’s spread with the need to treat possible victims with dignity, rather than as prisoners or pariahs,” Power said. 

“The training included health professionals as well as Ebola survivors who could tell the GOALies how it felt to be on the other side of the quarantine - a perspective too rarely taken into account.” 

One of the biggest challenges facing the highly affected villages, however, are rumors and general misinformation. Not only do false rumors hamper efforts to contain the virus, but they also leave huge amounts of people more vulnerable to infection. 

“In a climate of growing fear and limited understanding, rumors are spreading as fast as the virus itself,” she said. For example, there had been rumors that salt water cures Ebola, or even that the virus is a sham created by the government.

GOAL’s intervention has helped to dispel the rumors, and helped people in the community put public service announcements on local radio stations, for example, so that local citizens are listening to sources they can trust. 

The US and many other countries have indeed stepped up to help address all of these challenges – training hubs and treatment units are being established, millions of dollars are being donated, doctors are being deployed and more. Monetarily this has been the largest ever US response to a global health crisis, but it’s not enough.

We need to do more, Power said - for the sake of everyone in the world, not just the already infected areas. Only 25 of the UN’s 193 countries have pledged over one million dollars. Meanwhile, in Guinea and Sierra Leone, the number of infections is projected to double every three to four weeks, and in Liberia, infections are projected to double every two weeks. 

“Far too few are giving far too little. We are counting on others to step up,” Power said. “This is an all-hands-on-deck operation.” Sierra Leone alone, she noted, still only has a quarter of the patient beds they need. Evidence from GOAL and other humanitarian organizations shows that the world does contain the power, knowledge and resources to stop the spread. Power added that according to Sierra Leone’s health ministry, the number of infections has reduced each week of September. What we’re doing is working – we just need to do it more, do it faster, and do it with more confidence and gusto. 

“The fear is understandable…but we know how to care for people with Ebola safely. We can give patients a fighting chance of surviving - we just need to ensure that doctors, nurses and other health professionals have the right training.” 

Power said that now, as in the Great Hunger, hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake: “we cannot fail them,” she concluded.

“We must not fail them.”