Norway’s Ebola response: solidarity and security
– The Norwegian government understood the Ebola epidemic both as a humanitarian crisis and as a security threat.
Volunteers putting on their personal protective equipment before taking care of Ebola patients. Photo: Athalia Christie, via Flickr.
The Ebola epidemic of 2014-2015 killed over 11,000 people, 99.9% of which lived in three West-African countries: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée has just finished his master’s thesis on the Ebola crisis. He argues that bringing a security dimension to the crisis allowed the Norwegian government to mobilize more resources, in a more flexible way. However, he also found that this made the response heavy-handed, expensive and less effective.
– Norway's largest contribution consisted in setting-up a field hospital in Moyamba, Sierra Leone, for NOK 110 million. The 100-beds facility admitted 33 Ebola patients over three and half months, of which 18 died. The epidemiology, much less dramatic than forecasted, is key to explain these disappointing results. I suggest however that the government's high security requirements made the project more secure for the volunteers, but heavy handed, less effective and more expensive than NGOs' contributions, he says.
Norwegian health worker infected by Ebola
One event played a critical role to Norway’s engagement in the crisis: the infection of a Norwegian health worker by Ebola. In the newspapers, we could witness spectacular images of her journey back to Norway and admission to the main hospital of Oslo. This context led the government to react strongly by pledging NOK 250 million in a week (NOK 500 million altogether) - an unprecedented amount for a humanitarian crisis!
– The government’s response to Ebola was set-up both to satisfy the public’s demand to “do something” against the ongoing tragedy in West Africa and to contain the spread of the epidemic – i.e., protect Norway, says de Bengy Puyvallée.
That is also the conclusion that the Norwegian Directorate of Health states in its report on the Ebola crisis; “The motivations for the Norwegian contribution were thus both humanitarian and selfish” (1).
The consequences of framing the Ebola crisis as a security threat
The return of the Ebola infected health worker raised fears in the Norwegian public opinion and led the Ministry of Health to perceive the epidemic as a potential a public health crisis.
– The government’s response – or at least parts of it – was set-up as a mean to ensure Norway’s health security. Framing Ebola as a security threat legitimized the mobilization of large resources with an uncommon flexibility, says de Bengy Puyvallée.
– The increasing use of security arguments to legitimize humanitarian operations clearly raises ethical questions. Can this response lead to a shift in the development agenda towards issues with a potential to affect our security but with lesser impact on the most vulnerable?, he asks.
According to Save the Children, all the money spent internationally to fight the Ebola epidemic during one year could have financed three years of universal health coverage in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and considerably improve people’s lives (2).
- Health-Directorate (2015), Erfaringsgjennomgang av norsk ebolahåndtering, Rapport IS-2389, p. 50
- Save the Children (2015), A wake up call. Lessons from Ebola for the world's health systems, Report n°218, p 9.