Europe’s Stake in the Fight Against Ebola

By William Ellison

In the aftermath of the midterm elections, the American press’ coverage of the Ebola epidemic has been meager. Still, the epidemic rages on with little end in sight. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported over 17,000 cases of the disease, with at least 6,000 of those resulting in deaths, as of December 5th. This is the worst Ebola epidemic in history, far overshadowing the 1976 and 1995 outbreaks in Zaire, which resulted in 280 and 250 deaths respectively.

Currently, the crisis is concentrated in the African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Mali, while Nigeria and Senegal have now been declared Ebola-free by the WHO. Meanwhile, Europe’s only case of Ebola, in Spain, has been contained as of December 2nd. Nonetheless, the European Union (EU) must continue, and if possible increase, its effort in fighting Ebola not only for moral reasons but also to prevent political instability and economic depression in West Africa. Only then will Europe maintain its international example as a leading humanitarian aid donor.

Europe has been working with the WHO, Doctors without Borders, the United Nations’ Children Fund (UNICEF), the Red Cross, and other organizations to contain the epidemic. According to the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, as of December 5th, the Commission has pledged 372 million Euros in aid. Along with contributions from individual European states, this brings the total European pledge to nearly 1.1 billion Euros (around 1.3 billion dollars). Meanwhile, the United States has pledged only around 760 million dollars thus far. Some of the European countries that have been most heavily involved include the United Kingdom (UK), France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria.

Interestingly, the three major Western powers involved in the fight against Ebola – Britain, France, and the United States – have divided their responses along historical lines. Britain has taken responsible for supporting Guinea, a former British colony; France for Sierra Leone, a former French colony; and the U.S. for Liberia, a territory first purchased by American Quakers and free blacks in the early 19th century to create a country for slaves wishing to return to Africa.

The EU has a moral responsibility to help combat Ebola. A lethal disease outbreak is something that Europe, with its resources and knowledge, can play a key role in combating. Additionally, Europe has a long history of being at the forefront of providing humanitarian assistance, with recent examples being the European response to the Darfur conflict and Syrian Civil War. As Francoise Grossête, a Christian Democrat French politician, articulated during a European Parliament debate, “The values we stand for as Europeans in the world, of solidarity, of dignity and of respect for human rights, are such that our support to the countries concerned is a moral duty.”

Kristalina Georgieva (right), the EU’s commissioner for international cooperation, and Andris Piebalgs (left), the commissioner for development, at an EU meeting discussing Ebola on September 15 (Courtesy of Creative Commons).

Although Ebola is a public health threat to Europe, experts argue that the threat of a serious outbreak in Europe is quite low due to the preventive measures in place and the nature in which the disease is transmitted (through close contact with the bodily fluids of an infected individual or corpse). Still, the EU has a responsibility to contain the epidemic as long as the threat exists. Dane Peter Sorensen, the Director General for Humanitarian Aid for the EU argued, “It is better to deal with this disease at its root and not wait until it comes here like the plague in the Middle Ages.” Kristalina Georgieva, the Bulgarian EU Commissioner for International Cooperation, added, “There is no imminent threat to Europe itself – but particularly if the virus mutates, that may not hold in the future.”

Finally, in addition to causing death, illness, and misery, the disease is now so widespread that it is affecting the public order and economies of affected African nations. It is not in Europe’s interest for political instability or economic depression to engulf West Africa. This could pose an indirect or eventually even a direct threat to Europe itself if terrorist networks are established. The threat is especially potent because of lingering instability from the recently concluded civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, the presence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali, and the presence of Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Will Ellison ’18 is in Davenport College. He is a Globalist Notebook blogger on Europe. Contact him at