The national health systems of Sierra Leone and Liberia are barely functioning, and increasing pressure on them risks a complete meltdown, according to reports in popular media. Coordination of services to contain the Ebola outbreak remains fragmented and under resourced.
In an article as tragic as it is frightening, Adam Nossiter of the New York Times details how people are dying from Ebola in Makeni, Sierra Leone. The article reads like the script from a horror movie with no happy ending in sight.
The story sent shivers down my spine, and it coincided with my return from a meeting near London of IT and communications professionals with major international agencies gearing up to meet this crisis at scale. The fact is, the response is far behind the spreading virus, and while this is belatedly being addressed, it will take long-term, sustained attention to bring the contagion under control. Time is an enemy, and the complications of scaling up are many.
International agencies are dealing with major crises from Syria to Gaza to the Central African Republic. The World Health Organization currently lists eight Grade 3 emergencies, which are situations that require substantial international response. They are: Central African Republic, Guinea, Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and The Syrian Arab Republic.
This means the various agencies designed to deal with such emergencies were already being stretched before Ebola struck. Equally frustrating is the fact that this crisis graphically demonstrates how the lack of reliable communication today is a matter of life and death, but communication infrastructure lags behind human need.
The Tipping Point
Nearly every input imaginable is needed for this crisis from skilled personnel, to vehicles to transport the ill and the deceased, to a supply chain for materials, to communications for internal operations and external messaging, to technical personnel to support the technology, to facilities for isolating ill persons and myriad other physical and personnel needs.
What is called for now is urgent placement of skilled staff in the affected regions, facilities to support isolation and treatment, and material resources such as gloves, disinfectants, medications, body bags, protective suits and equipment.
But too many leaders, including global leaders and church leaders, have underestimated the significance of communication and the infrastructure necessary for it to work. We have reached a tipping point in our understanding of humanitarian aid. It is no longer limited to food, shelter, clothing, water and medicines. Lack of communications capacity has exacerbated this crisis.
The ability to communicate and the quality of the information delivered are matters of life and death. Pure and simple, communication is aid.
And humanitarian aid, like so many other necessary daily functions, is becoming digitized. This means that globally, communication infrastructure, messaging and personal communication devices will become essential for daily affairs, much as they already are in the global North.
A Paradigm Shift
In the short-term future, we will see a paradigm shift toward digital humanitarian aid through the use of smart cards and mobile services. And this is changing older methods of providing aid because the new model is faster, more efficient and more economical, and it will reach more people. It also makes aid customizable and personal. And this means it is measurable, and the delivery system can be made more accountable.
This may seem like a pipe dream, but we are, in fact, already seeing how digital tools are being used in refugee settlements in the Middle East, and this will only grow as the systems become perfected.
The Ebola crisis is demonstrating that in this new age of pervasive technology, no one on the planet is so isolated that they can exist outside the global web of connectivity that delivers life-enhancing, and life-saving, information. And it is demonstrating that those concerned with humanitarian assistance to people in crisis situations must be at the forefront of this new era of technology for good because to do otherwise is to allow events to spiral out of control, with tragic results.
Text messages, such as this one from United Methodist Communications, represent the new form of digital aid being used in the international response to the Ebola crisis. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.