“16,000 Ebola Orphans: Rethinking Global Children’s Health” by Jason Doukakis

2015 Child Rights Essay Competition: 2rd Place, Group 3 (College/University Students)

Jason Doukakis – New Haven, CT / Yale University

Jason DoukakisThe Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which has been dubiously estimated to have claimed 11,305 lives as of the 30th of August 2015, was undoubtedly very well publicized throughout the past year. The media drooled over its headline potential, with the western public gleefully playing along by making it the subject of a myriad of uninformed commentaries, sensationalist outbursts, terrified statuses, tweets, and the sort. In the midst of the uninformed and inappropriately trendy collective hysteria, few became aware of the resulting 16,000 abandoned children that had lost one or both parents or caregivers in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia – the Ebola orphans.

As the crisis hit those three countries the hardest, the principal challenge for the international community and aid organizations lied in providing these children with immediate shelter, sustenance and a family. The root problem, however, was that communities and remaining relatives had started to openly refuse to take them in, abandoning them when they contracted the virus or when their parents passed away. In reality, because the young were more likely to survive Ebola, most of these orphans had already done so and were by then immune and no longer contagious. Yet uneducated populations, especially in rural communities, adamantly viewed these children as either Ebola “magnets” or vectors.

The result? More than 16,000 children have had their lives completely shattered, with many having to wander the cities and countryside alone, ostracized and persecuted, in countries lacking the institutional structures and expertise required to respond to a crisis of this magnitude and character. Malnutrition, disease, child labor, military recruitment, sexual exploitation and drug and human trafficking already threaten children in Western African states such as Sierra Leona, where around 12,000 of the Ebola orphans are located. Needless to explain that they were thus even more vulnerable and defenseless in the face of these dangers. Their future appears grim, and as things stand few of them will be lucky enough to permanently settle down or leave the shelters, care centers and orphanages in which they are located any time soon.

This was only one bit of the mosaic of disorder and non-­cooperation that was observed in the countries affected by the epidemic, contributing to a phenomenon experts have termed “pingponging:” ignorant and rattled citizens spreading the virus unknowingly from one village to the other or from the cities to the villages and back again. Exemplary is the case of a mother that survived the virus and explained to journalists how, upon hearing about Ebola, she panicked that “it” – perhaps in some sort of material demonic manifestation – would “come get her.” For this reason she fled and hid from aid workers in the jungle for weeks, where she nevertheless contracted and spread the virus while in hiding. The general citizenry’s lack of fundamental knowledge about health, illnesses and basic medicinal practices poses a frightening challenge to the protection of children in many of these communities. How can we effectively promote rights to child health and education given the crippling consequences of such crises?

Though thousands have died from the Ebola virus, it appears that the orphaned child survivors run the risk of remaining the forgotten victims of this epidemic. In fact, UNICEF declared 2014 to be one of the worst years for children globally, in a report revealing shocking figures and statistics. The resonance of this announcement coupled with the devastating situation of the Ebola orphans has sparked a debate over the efficacy of international crisis response mechanisms. Decades of commitment of international aid organizations in the West African region, promoting provisions and rights for children, have been dreadfully undermined in a mere year’s time. Issues like illiteracy or female circumcision have become almost secondary to aid workers, as many children in Sierra Leone were trapped in hostile quarantine zones, abandoned by their families and attacked by their communities. Meanwhile, approximately 5 million children’s schooling was interrupted. In other words, the inability to effectively combat this crisis has undone years of progress for children and their development in West Africa.

This crisis and the attitude towards child survivors of Ebola indicate that the correct foundations have not been laid out; treating the problem’s symptoms is not the same as attacking its root causes. The priority in such response efforts should be set long before the response to a crisis is required: a preventative strategy of health, sanitation and disease prevention education for local populations. This does not in any way suggest that issues such as literacy and any of the numerous other objectives pursued are in any way inferior or irrelevant, but that in order to achieve them we first need to successfully promote local community health knowledge and a common framework of understanding with the local populations. That is the only way to effectively protect and ensure the health and wellbeing of children, so that we can then fight for their rights, their education and their future. The 16,000 Ebola orphans now remind us exactly that.

− Hersher, Rebecca, McEvers, Kelly. “As Ebola Pingpongs In Liberia, Cases Disappear Into The Jungle.” NPR Online. NPR, 25 Nov. 2014. Web. 7 Sept. 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2014/11/25/366381386/as-ebola-­ping-­pongs-in-­liberia-­cases-­disappear-into‐the‐jungle.
− Kedmey, Dan. “UNICEF Declares 2014 a ‘Devastating’ Year for Children.” TIME Online. TIME, 8 Dec. 2014. Web. 7 Sept. 2015. http://time.com/3623972/united-­‐nations-­global-­conflict-­youth/.
− McNeil, Donald G., Jr. “Fewer Ebola Cases Go Unreported Than Thought, Study Finds.” The New York Times Online. The New York Times, 16 Dec. 2014. Web. 7 Sept. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/16/science/fewer-­ebola-­cases-­go-unreported-­than-­thought-­study-­finds-­.html?_r=0.
− UNICEF News Note, “More than 16,000 children lost parents or caregivers to Ebola -­‐ many are taken in by the communities: UNICEF.” UNICEF Online. UNICEF, 6 Feb. 2015. Web. 7 Sept. 2015. http://www.unicef.org/media/media_79742.html.
− WHO, “Ebola Situation Reports.” WHO Online. World Health Organization, 30 Aug. 2015. Web. 7 Sept. 2015 http://apps.who.int/ebola/ebola-­situation-­reports.