Although two of the three countries hardest hit by last year’s Ebola outbreak have been declared free of the virus, they aren’t out of the woods yet. Deaths related to the massive Ebola outbreak that swept across western Africa last year continue to take place, even in Liberia, which was declared “Ebola free” by the World Health Organization (WHO) May 9. “Sadly, we recently witnessed the urgent need for such efforts when a new death due to the Ebola Virus Disease was identified in Liberia, some forty-five days after the country had been declared ‘Ebola Free,’” Archbishop Bernardito Auza said in a July 9 statement. Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the U.N., Archbishop Auza issued the statement on the occasion of an International Ebola Recovery Conference in New York, hosted by the United Nations. The July 9 conference was followed the next day by another, aimed at ensuring that recovery efforts go beyond a mere redress of direct development losses, but also extend to rebuilding and ensuring greater resilience. According to the WHO, the total number of reported Ebola cases to date exceeds 27,300. The Ebola outbreak first reported in March 2014 has claimed at least 11,193 lives since the first confirmed case, the death of a two-year-old boy in Guinea. Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone were the countries hardest hit by the outbreak, although deaths were also reported in Nigeria, the U.S., and Mali. Although the number of deaths in both Guinea and Sierra Leone had dwindled to the single digits earlier this summer, numbers again rose to the double digits at the end of June, quelling hopes the countries would also soon be dubbed “Ebola free.” In his statement for the U.N. conference, Archbishop Auza stressed that the review and planning taking place in the meeting “must result in action-oriented commitments to overcome all risk of complacency and to make tangible progress in the strengthening and preparedness of health systems to avoid future outbreaks.” Monsignor Robert J. Vitillo, a special adviser on health for Caritas International, last fall voiced his concern for the fate of the three West African countries at the height of the outbreak. Despite the fact that Sierra Leone experienced tremendous economic growth in 2013, the situation has now reversed due to Ebola, he said. The infrastructure of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, “is at the point of collapsing.” Already weak from recurring wars and abject poverty, Msgr. Vitillo said the countries are headed for catastrophe if the economic impact is as high as predicted, adding that the situation is worsened by the numerous school closures. Children who are not in school are at greater risk of falling into petty crime or being manipulated or abused, Msgr. Vitillo went on. Health infrastructure in these countries was already “quite weak and now is unable to respond to the crushing demands of Ebola care, routine health care and other health emergency situations.” However, he noted that despite the immense challenges, the Church has been at the forefront of the Ebola fight, and has provided an essential role in maintaining continuous care. Archbishop Auza recognized the efforts made on the part of the local Catholic communities in the affected countries, who have been on the frontlines in fighting the epidemic and providing support to the families of the victims. He reiterated the Holy See’s commitment “to continue to work, through Catholic institutions in the countries and areas affected by Ebola and its international humanitarian network, towards the achievement of getting to zero and staying at zero.” The archbishop also pointed to Pope Francis’ 2015 speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, in which the Pope renewed his plea on behalf of the sick, “who are so often cast aside and marginalized,” giving specific mention to victims of the Ebola outbreak. He observed how those who recovered from the virus, those thought to have it, as well as children orphaned by it, have at times faced discrimination and ostracization from their families and communities due to a lack of knowledge about Ebola. Local Catholic communities, he said, have “strongly opposed discrimination against those who recovered from the illness and children who have been orphaned by the Ebola-related deaths of their parents, while actively working for their reintegration into their families and communities.” Archbishop Auza also announced that the Holy See would be giving a donation $20,000 to support both national and regional efforts to recover from the devastating consequences of the Ebola outbreak. The donation, he said, is an expression of “the remarkable efforts of all to defeat Ebola” and is a sign of solidarity with those affected by the virus. The sum is added to the millions of dollars in funding and supplies gathered by various international Catholic organizations to assist the Church in the affected countries. Pope Francis himself has granted 500,000 euros ($542,000) to advance what the archbishop referred to as “a special initiative.” He said the Holy See continues to provide “significant resources” to Church-related institutions in the three affected countries in order to enhance and expand their programs. The archbishop closed with an appeal for the international community to “exert all necessary effort to defeat Ebola,” and to work to alleviate the hardships and sufferings of all those affected by it.
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