The worst Ebola virus outbreak in history has killed nearly 9,000 people, almost all of them in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The WHO says the worst is over but Germany's Ebola envoy says there is need for caution.
DW: The World Health Organization says the number of new Ebola infections is falling and the tide may be turning. You have just returned from Sierra Leone, one of the worst affected countries. Do you share this view?
Walter Lindner: Indeed I have just returned from my fifth visit in the region within four months. It's true, I could really see a change. For the first time there is a light at the end of the tunnel but we have to be careful because walking this last mile will be a very difficult thing to do. There are dangers on the way, people are losing their attention, they are going back to school, and they are touching each other again. In short, if we are too relaxed about this, then the whole thing could turn for the worse again. It is a turn of the tide, that's true and we might get down to zero (cases) within the next months but we really have to keep up our efforts.
The epidemic has had a catastrophic effect on the economies of the affected countries. Aid agency OXFAM has called for a program to start up the economic motor again and says there can be no excuse for other countries not to help. This is also being discussed at the African Union summit now underway in Addis Ababa. What could Germany's contribution be?
I think everyone is aware that we all came late, except for very few organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders). They were the ones who were warning earlier on that this could be a big epidemic. We came late, but we came. I think the (international) presence is now everywhere in all the three countries. This is during the time of need and humanitarian assistance. But of course after the humanitarian assistance there will be the development partners and the development people. There might be different people who will be present but of course one part of the lessons learnt from Ebola is that we have to make sure that the health system, educational system and other things in those countries which were already weak before Ebola, should be strengthened. Only then can we avoid another outbreak of the same dimension
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has just announced an ambitious plan involving a group of so called ‘white helmets' who could help in future epidemics or crises. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
In a speech at the GAVI conference [on bringing vaccines to poor countries] just a few days ago, she mentioned that one of the lessons learnt from Ebola is that we have to strengthen the international crisis management, not only in the health sector but also in other crises. We have seen that the international mechanisms were also too late. They didn't ring the alarm bell, so we have to make sure that we can enable the international community to react faster.
She (Merkel) said that she will write to the UN Secretary General to ask him to set up a panel to see what could be done there. This will be elaborated in a letter she will send in a few days. But the point is that on the level of the global crisis management, we have to see what lessons can be learnt. On EU level, on national level,each government has to see – and maybe even each ministry has to see what can be done.
The affected countries have to see what they can do to contribute to the prevetion of future outbreaks. What kind of structures should we leave behind after the Ebola crisis is over to make sure that the alarm bell rings in these countries - like the emergency numbers which we have set up or which the countries have set up. Should there be better border control or other measures in the health system? That's why it's a very timely initiative by the chancellor. In a few months time there might be another crisis and the same people dealing with this crisis might have forgotten the lessons learnt. That's why it is important to do it now and that's why this initiative comes up now.
In your own position as the German government special commissioner for Ebola – how long do you think there will still be a need for this position?
I will be there until we really get a grip on the Ebola epidemic. If we still have 100 cases per week, this is by no means over. We still need the crisis managers all over the world.
Walter Lindner is the German government's special commissioner for Ebola.
Interview: Susan Houlton