As the Ebola death toll in West Africa continues to rise, we are rapidly scaling up our response to try to match its reach. But, along with most of the humanitarian and international community, we are playing catch-up. The initial response to this crisis was too slow and too small.
The self-flagellation and recriminations must come later. What must come now, with absolutely no delay, is an unprecedented global effort to prevent Ebola from shattering the futures of a whole generation of children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
I write this from Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.
This country accounts for more than 2,000 of the 3,400 estimated deaths from Ebola across the region, but with cases going unreported, some dying without seeking help, and others succumbing in communities which are barely accessible, that’s almost certainly a gross underestimate.
UNICEF calculates that around 2,000 children in Liberia have lost both parents to the virus.
And what does a child in this position face? The chances are, they will be a ‘contact’, meaning they were in very close proximity to someone who had Ebola.
For those who are identified, this means 21 days under quarantine being monitored every day for symptoms.
For some children here, it means being pushed to the margins of society, and rejected by a community whose instinct to help is paralysed by their sheer terror of this horrific disease.
All this means that Jennifer* is comparatively fortunate. She is living under quarantine with her aunt, her two brothers Robin*, 6, and Luke*, 12, and her 13-year-old sister Sarah*.
Their mother became sick a little over a month ago, and died on 7 September. Just two weeks later, their father died in the same facility. It was only at this point that the children were placed under quarantine with their aunt.
We provided them with a 21-day survival pack. It includes food, water and hygiene items. We will also give psychosocial support to try and help them cope.
But like all children here now, they face a precarious future. Even if they emerge unscathed from isolation, not everyone will accept that they are safe to be around or to play with.
Raising awareness, treating victims
Save the Children has been running a mass public campaign to educate people about Ebola. Messages are broadcast three times a day, every day, on 14 different radio stations in eight of Liberia’s 15 counties and we’ve produced tens of thousands of posters and factsheets, too. We estimate that they have reached 260,000 people.
We’ve also built a treatment centre in north-west Liberia and are building another west of Monrovia along with ten smaller care centres in an innovative community-level approach to ensure no one is left to die without access to healthcare.
Although the challenge is unprecedented, and the spread of this virus wildly unpredictable, there are some certainties: a co-ordinated global effort on the scale required will save thousands of lives.
Equally, there are going to be many children who require the world’s compassion, care and attention for some time to come.
The international and humanitarian community must pour money, technical expertise and equipment into Liberia and across the region.
We must not look back on this crisis in years to come and realise we did not do enough, and that thousands of people lost their lives as a result.
Save the Children teams are treating patients and raising awareness of Ebola in West Africa. But we need your support to reach more people: please donate today to our Ebola Crisis Appeal.
*names changed to protect identity