Ebola, A threat to Security?

Charlotte Sagan

On September 14, the 15 countries of the United Nations Security Council met in a historic emergency session marking the first ever Security Council meeting on a health issue: Ebola. In an extraordinarily rare consensus, the Council declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, “a threat to international peace and security.”1 With this declaration, a public health epidemic was officially labeled a global security issue.

Traditional notions of security deal with military affairs, and interstate-politics and conflicts, while health is typically considered a humanitarian issue.2 But in the past decade, the intersection of security and health has risen to the attention of policy makers, and health is increasingly recognized as an important factor in state development and wellbeing. (The 2002 Asian SARS epidemic and 1995 Arum Shrinkyo Sarin Gas Terrorist attack on Tokyo subway are just two examples). In today’s globalized world, economic dependence on international trade means that infectious diseases can spread across borders and continents within days. In 1992, the Former United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, called for research into “new risks for stability” in the evolving concept of security in the post cold war era. His report states: “drought and disease can decimate no less mercilessly than the weapons of war.”2

The Ebola epidemic has risen out of the vicissitudes of West Africa with a pace of destruction that can indeed rival the wrath of war. With 8,000 cases and 4931 deaths recorded as of mid-November 2014, the world is seeing the largest epidemic of Ebola Virus ever recorded. And this could just be the beginning. Experts say if intervention efforts are not improved, deaths could skyrocket to as many as 90,000 by December 2014.3 In Liberia and Sierra Leone, hospitals are overwhelmed as the number of sick exceeds the number of available beds. Health care workers, medical equipment and effective supply and communication networks are in desperate shortage.

But the consequences of the disease go beyond case counts and hospitals. In her testimony to the security council, Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, said, “I have never seen an infectious disease contribute so strongly to potential state failure.” A failed state is defined by the Fund for Peace as a nation that has lost control over its borders and territory, has lost legitimacy and authority in decision-making and is unable to provide public services.4 Failed states can be characterized by widespread corruption, instability of livelihoods, criminality and economic decline. Stephen Stedman, Deputy Director at the Center on Democracy Development and the Rule of Law, argues that it is crucial to consider the implications of disease from a security perspective. As the Ebola outbreak worsens, the West African nations worst hit by the disease are struggling to maintain government legitimacy and capability. In August, violent riots broke out in the Liberian capital of Monrovia in response to government attempts to quarantine the central slum of West Point. Public service provision of health care, already weak before the outbreak, has deteriorated further. The extreme shortage of doctors and nurses (Liberia has 2 nurses per 10,000 people) means that each additional health care worker death is a significant capacity loss. When the sick and dying lay on the ground outside overfilled hospitals, the perceived legitimacy of the government plummets. When faith in government relief efforts is low, and particularly if official treatment centers are seen as places of death, the infected and sick will stop coming to the hospitals. The sick avoiding treatment is a worst possible scenario for controlling the epidemic. Economic damage forecasts quantify the devastating effects of the outbreak; the World Bank estimates $32.6 billion lost by the end of 2015 if the disease goes unchecked.5

Should Ebola cause state failure, two decades of aid and effort to bring political stability and economic growth to West Africa would be wasted. The United Nations has spent almost 8 millions dollars in peacekeeping in Liberia since 2004 alone.6 On September 15, President Barack Obama announced Operation “United Assistance,” committing 3000 American soldiers to the aid effort against Ebola, and calling the disease a “threat to regional and global security.”7 With this announcement, the United States, like the United Nations, officially designated Ebola a security issue. The US military has a surge capacity that public health institutions lack, and this capacity can play a key role in restoring order, increasing treatment capabilities and supporting healthcare workers. The core role of the 101st airborne will be to build more treatment capacity (hospitals, Emergency Treatment Units, diagnostic laboratories). In roles very different from traditional combat, the mission presents a new kind of dangerous undertaking for American soldiers. We are battling a disease that knows no cure. Not all supported Obama’s decision. Some argue that health still should remain purely a humanitarian issue, and adding military to the crisis runs the risk of state coercion and military provocation. Others argue that the US should be focusing more on protecting its own borders and people.8 Yet as Dr. Stedman points out, the disease is so virulent that without adequate response, it could spread immediately, and if rampant enough, could cause state failure in any nation.

So is labeling Ebola as a security threat a good idea? In this case, yes. The resources, leadership and capacity gained by international consensus on Ebola as a security threat are crucial contributions to combating the epidemic. The risks brought by military intervention are far outweighed by the scope of the emergency and need for immediate, all-resources-possible response. Not only do we have a humanitarian responsibility to the people of West Africa, but to protect the American public as well, we must address the epidemic at its roots. If Ebola unchecked has the potential to tear apart the global fabric of world order, which the decline of Liberia and Sierra Leone suggests is possible, than the epidemic at hand is an international security issue indeed.


1. Hiatt, A. (2014, October 20). UN Security Council unanimously declares Ebola outbreak ‘threat to international peace’ Jerusalem Post. Retrieved November 14, 1, from http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Politics-And-Diplomacy/UN-unanimously-declares-Ebola-outbreak-threat-to-international-peace-and-security-375877

2. Ban, J. (2003). Health as a global security challenge. Seton Hall J. Dipl. & Int’l Rel., 4, 19. Accessed at http://blogs.shu.edu/diplomacy/files/archives/04_ban.pdf

3. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/24/foundation-ebola-liberia-idUSL6N0SI5UP20141024

4. Fragile States Index FAQ. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://ffp.statesindex.org/faq

5. Sorkin, A. (2014, October 13). Calculating the Grim Economic Costs of Ebola Outbreak. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2014/10/13/calculating-the-grim-costs-of-ebola/

6. Sengupta, S. (2014, October 14). New Ebola Cases May Soon Reach 10,000 a Week, Officials Predict. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/15/world/africa/ebola-epidemic-who-west-africa.html

7. Obama: Ebola Threat to ‘Regional, Global Security’ (2014, September 25). Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://www.voanews.com/content/obama-to-address-un-ebola-meeting/2462000.html

8. Ridenour, D. (2014, November 1). The rank injustice of sending U.S. troops to battle Ebola. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://triblive.com/opinion/featuredcommentary/7059273-74/ebola-military-soldiers#axzz3HwlUQVDC