Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Law in the time of Ebola

The human tragedy unfolding in Africa, as multiple countries attempt to contain the most widespread Ebola outbreak ever, is as fascinating as it is frightening.

But I doubt many of us would consider the legal implications that would arise in dealing with a pandemic.  The situation in Liberia shows how society can break down on many levels when facing an almost-incurable contagion.  And I got a small glimpse of it through a blog post on our internal network for the government.

B.C. has asked that I not use his name and I will respect his wishes; he is a policy adviser at another ministry and is in Liberia for a year working on strategic planning in the justice sector.  I asked if I could repost his blog for my friends in the legal community to see.

It's also a stark reminder to us of what could happen to our own society should another influenza epidemic, similar to the one of 1918 to 1920, take place.  At that time, it was estimated that 3 to 5% of the entire world's population died due to the H1N1 strain of the flu.  In today's numbers, that equals almost 2 million Canadians and 16 million Americans.

Aside from what those numbers would mean to our health care systems, think about what it would mean for business productivity and civil order.  It sends a shiver down my spine, that's for sure!


When I arrived in Liberia on July 14, the World Health Organization was reporting that the total number of confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola in the country was 174 and the total number of deaths was 106.

As of this writing the total number was 972 cases with 576 deaths.

My work here includes overseeing the strategic planning for the justice and security sector reform work that the UN has been doing in Liberia since 2003.

There are a couple of key areas where progress has been lagging:

·         constitutional reform
·         the reconciliation of traditional justice practices with the statutory rule of law system
·         the operation of the criminal justice system
·         the incorporation of human rights perspective in the broader rule of law instruments
·         the legislative reform agenda

It is difficult to gain traction on big issues like these at the best of times but, as you might imagine, it is even more difficult during the middle of an Ebola crisis.

Last week we met with the minister of justice, and then this week the chief justice.  They were, to say the least, deeply impatient with any efforts we made to raise issues of system transformation.  At first take, it might be hard to disagree with them.  This is a time of crisis when justice issues should take a back seat to the public health imperative, right?

Not in Liberia.

Responding to the crisis has put the health care system under incredible strain.

Before international media attention focused its capricious lens on what was happening here hospitals - unable to deal with the technical and psychological challenges of treating Ebola – had started to close.

It is a disease that targets the intimacy and dedication of family caring for loved ones and doctors and nurses tending their patients.  The vast majority of people who have been infected are related to existing patients.  And, heroically, over 60 front-line health care workers have died.

By the time it became apparent that this was not something that could be easily contained, the health care system was decimated and demoralised.

Adding to the problem are age-old cultural, geographic and economic divides that are the very fault lines that produced the conflict.  There is a deep suspicion towards government and its institutions here, and generations of mistrust between the indigenous people, ethnic minorities and the poor against the wealthy elite who rule the country.

Early efforts to communicate about the dangers of Ebola were seen as targeting traditional burial practices – dead bodies are highly infectious – or as a conspiracy.  So, when health officials arrived to remove the sick and the dead, in some villages, they were challenged or threatened.

In early August, when it began to become clear to everyone here that the outbreak was bigger and growing faster than the health system here could contain, the president declared a state of emergency.

This gave her the power to deploy the army to enforce measures to fight Ebola.  Those of us working in the justice and security sector had concerns about how this would work.

·         Would there be civilian control of the army?
·         How will their presence and role be communicated to a populace that associates the national army with violence and bloodshed?
·         What are the human rights implications of using the military to quarantine entire villages?
When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  And sure enough, last week the army was called out to help quarantine a high-density, low income neighbourhood in Monrovia called West Point.

No one had engaged with community leaders to explain what was happening and residents began to challenge the blockade.  The army started firing.  There are many different versions of what happened but, either from bullets or from the press of the crowd, people were injured and a 15 year-old boy may have died.

So the link between Ebola and justice and security is more direct than you might first think.  Part of my job is look at how the UN mission can respond quickly and effectively to these issues.

All the while the spread of the disease continues.  What started out as one of the biggest public health challenges the world has seen for some time, is now an even bigger public health challenge.

It is becoming likely that the long term effect of the outbreak in the country will include food shortages, economic devastation and the possibility of a broader humanitarian crisis.  This country’s hard won peace and security and the well-being of its civilian population will be put under significant strain.

I had plans of arranging an OPS specific fundraising effort.  I thought maybe we could raise some money to buy an ambulance or provide medical equipment and supplies for front-line workers.

But the truth is, at this point, I can’t guarantee the money will go where it is most needed.

Instead, I ask you to consider giving a small donation to one of the front-line groups fighting the outbreak.  There are many groups but I can personally vouch for the importance of Médecins San Frontières.  Visit their website to make a donation and direct it specifically to their Ebola work.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What year is this?

I don't make any secret of the fact that I'm on the wrong side of 50; which means I grew up in the 1960s.

It was a tumultuous time both socially and politically.  CNN has been airing a series recently about the decade; even casual viewing of a few of the episodes would give you some sense of the events that unfolded during the period.

Over the past few months, events that have been taking place around the world are sad echoes of the times now half a century behind us:  civil unrest in the United States, war in the Middle East, and Russian aggression toward their neighbours being the most obvious examples.  Every night, the television newcasts would broadcast grainy black and white pictures of decimation in Vietnam, helicopters spraying deadly chemicals to clear dense vegetation where the enemy hid, soldiers toting automatic rifles, and frightened citizens gazing into the camera lens with desperation writ large on their faces.

As I wrote in a blog post last fall, it is a sad fact that the earliest memories I have of my life are of the events surrounding President Kennedy's assassination, the first of four that rocked the landscape of civil rights in the US.  During the year of Canada's Centennial, I watched Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, defend her country's preemptive attack on its neighbours; less than a year later, I sat in my grandparents' living room as they made desperate phone calls to Czechoslovakia - calls that couldn't be completed - while watching tanks roll into Prague on TV.  Shortly after that, I was on an airplane travelling from London to Dublin when it was announced that Senator Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles.

The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana famously wrote " Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

Watching the news these past few months, is it any wonder that I might feel that I have been transported back to the 1960s and we are, indeed, repeating our past?

How I know I'm NOT back in 1968:  the American protestors are almost uniformly black - back then, they were mostly white; the lack of protest music on mainstream radio (yes, I mentioned 60s music, so sue me); and the fact that television coverage is 24/7, thanks to our instant-news age, rather than doled out in 30-second bites of sound and fury.

Most importantly - most of the nuclear arsenals of the world have been dismantled and we no longer live in fear of atomic bombs dropping on us.

I have no answers - I wouldn't know where to begin to find them.  While I don't believe in god, the words of PF Sloan, songwriter of the 1965 song "Eve of Destruction" and member of The Grassroots, hold true:

"The song contained a number of issues that were unbearable for me at the time. I wrote it as a prayer to God for an answer."

If I don't stop now, this blog entry will begin to ramble, but the situation in Ferguson, Missouri spurs me to think of these words of Winston Churchill:

" is the people who control the Government, not the Government the people."

It's time for the governments in the United States, in Russia, in Palestine, in Israel, in Iraq, even in "Red China" (to reference that song again) to learn this lesson; learn it well, and learn it FAST!