(Nairobi, September 15, 2014) –West African governments should ensure rights protections as a crucial element in controlling the unprecedented Ebola epidemic ravaging the region, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch expressed its sympathy to the families, friends, and colleagues of those who have died as a result of the Ebola outbreak, and recognized the courage of many health workers and others in caring for the sick.
Governments in Ebola-affected countries should better protect health workers from infection, limit use of quarantines, address the gender dimensions of the outbreak, ensure security forces responding to the crisis respect basic rights, and facilitate independent monitoring of emergency measures and donations, Human Rights Watch said. Donor governments, through international assistance and cooperation, should help these governments fulfill the right to health and efforts to address the epidemic’s broader impact.
“Given the tragic magnitude of this epidemic, the affected governments cannot and should not be expected to fulfil the right to health on their own,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The international community must help assume this responsibility, while insisting that governments do their part by ensuring transparency and respect for human rights as they respond to the crisis.”
As of September 5, 2014, there have been 4,784 confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola virus, and more than 2,400 deaths across most regions of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, and in two cities in Nigeria. Cases were confirmed in 7 of 8 regions in Guinea; 10 of 15 counties in Liberia; and 13 of 14 districts in Sierra Leone, as well as in the Senegalese capital Dakar, and the Nigerian cities of Lagos and Port Harcourt. Among the dead are over 140 health workers.
Doctors without Borders, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the US Centers for Disease Control, among other organizations, have repeatedly warned that the outbreak is spiraling out of control. A WHO statement on September 8 said the number of new cases is increasing exponentially. Ebola treatment centers are overflowing and turning highly infectious patients away.
The epidemic has resulted in severe contraction of West Africa’s economies and a near collapse of health care systems in the worst-affected countries, Human Rights Watch said. It is reducing access to health care for children, pregnant women, and others with chronic and acute health concerns. Health workers have expressed concern about the lack of health care for, and increasingly mortality from, other diseases and conditions like malaria, typhoid, dysentery, and childbirth complications. Local nongovernmental organizations need increased support to educate the population about the disease and monitor government response, including the use of humanitarian assistance.
The Ebola epidemic is unfolding in three of the world’s poorest countries. Each has had decades of violence and instability, including brutal armed conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone and authoritarian rule in Guinea. When the three countries’ presidents assumed office (Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006, Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma in 2007, and Guinea’s Alpha Condé in 2010), they inherited nations with deeply broken infrastructure, weak rule of law institutions, communal tensions, abusive security forces, crushing poverty, and phenomenally high unemployment.
While these governments have made progress in ensuring respect for human rights, including the right to the highest obtainable standard of health, serious challenges remain. Health indicators. including maternal mortality, child mortality, and life expectancy, are among the world’s worst. Endemic corruption, weak road networks, the “brain drain” of medical personnel, and the widespread destruction of health facilities during armed conflict have undermined the right to health for decades.
“As they respond to the Ebola crisis, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone should address ongoing governance challenges by ensuring the transparent use of funds, improving health infrastructure, making the security forces more accountable, and improving communication between government and the population,” Dufka said.