Exclusive: Ban Cancels Visit to Ebola-Ravaged West Africa

The U.N. secretary-general's surprise trip has been -- surprise! -- shelved to avoid "disruption."

Photo by John Thys - Pool/Getty Images
Photo by John Thys - Pool/Getty Images

It was conceived as a show of international solidarity with the people of Ebola-afflicted West Africa. On Oct. 31, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon planned to make a surprise trip to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to underscore the need to end the region’s increasing isolation and counter what he has argued is an overblown fear of contagion.

But Ban’s travel plan — which was not made public — has been quietly canceled. A week after Ban’s office instructed staff members to get their visas in order, it sent a follow-up note advising Ban’s entourage that "the secretary general’s visit to Ebola-affected countries will not take place."

A spokesman for the U.N. chief, Stéphane Dujarric, confirmed that "a trip to the impacted countries was indeed envisaged but no final decision was ever made to go ahead. It’s important to balance the benefits of these types of travels against the disruption that may be caused to both the U.N. team on the ground and the national governments, who already have their hands full, by a visit of the secretary-general."

The decision underscores the challenges that the United Nations faces in convincing a weary world that the Ebola epidemic, however fatal, is no cause to seal off a country’s border. Ban has struggled to coax airlines and shipping companies to operate in the region. "Isolation only hampers international efforts to reach people in need," he told the Security Council during a Sept. 18 meeting convened at the request of the United States.

But it has been a tough sell, given rising international anxiety about the prospects that the deadly virus will spread even farther. On Tuesday, Oct. 21, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced new restrictions on travelers entering the United States from the three Ebola-infected countries. Visitors will have to enter the country through one of five U.S. international airports: John F. Kennedy in New York; Liberty International in Newark, New Jersey; Washington Dulles near Washington, D.C.; Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta; or O’Hare in Chicago. But West Africa isn’t the only target of travel restrictions.

On Sunday, the Rwandan government, a member of the U.N. Security Council, which has been overseeing the international response to the crisis, imposed restrictions on travel from countries where Ebola has been present, including the United States and Spain, according to a U.S. travel advisory issued Tuesday. According to the advisory, Rwanda will deny entry to visitors who either have a temperature of 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit or who have traveled to Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Senegal during the past 22 days. Travelers who have been in the United States or Spain during the past 22 days must regularly report their medical condition to the authorities even if they show no symptoms. In addition, the Rwandan government may place "visitors who have recently traveled to places where Ebola outbreaks have occurred" in isolation.

"We urge U.S. citizens who may have a fever or who have traveled to countries where an Ebola outbreak has occurred to weigh carefully whether travel to Rwanda at this time is prudent given measures to screen incoming visitors," the advisory states. "Please note neither the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs nor the U.S. Embassy have authority over quarantine issues and cannot prevent a U.S. citizen from being quarantined should local health authorities require it."

The United Nations meanwhile has continued to try to allay fears. Last week, Ban’s deputy spokesman, Farhan Haq, hosted a press conference for an official from the U.N. Children’s Fund who had just returned from a five-week visit to Liberia. Back in the United States only five days, Sarah Crowe, UNICEF’s crisis communications chief, provided a refresher course on precautions for detecting the virus’s spread and assured everyone that she was not contagious. She displayed her "go-to" anti-Ebola kit, which includes hand sanitizer and a thermometer, that she takes everywhere she goes. She posted updates on her temperature outside her New York office to assure colleagues. After the press conference ended, Haq half-jokingly invited U.N.-based reporters to "feel free to come in and shake Sarah’s hand before you depart."

There were no takers, except for Haq, who shook her hand farewell, only to be asked by a colleague to disinfect his hands before returning to his office. "I had to wash my hands promptly so I wouldn’t make any colleagues nervous," he said.

Crowe’s reception was even chillier outside U.N. headquarters. "The bus conductor on the bus said, ‘Where have you been hiding? I haven’t seen you for a while.’ And I said, ‘Well do you really want to know? I’ve been in Liberia,’" she recalled. "I got gasps from those on the bus [who then] moved away from me, and then the bus driver said, ‘Should she really be allowed on the bus?’"

Amid international concerns about the World Health Organization’s slow response to the crisis, Ban established the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response to coordinate the international effort. Anthony Banbury, the American who heads the mission, is visiting the three hardest-hit Ebola countries this week to coordinate plans for containing the virus.

The U.N. secretary-general, however, "is committed to visiting the impacted countries when such a trip can be most useful," Dujarric said. For now, Ban said he is focusing on securing cash and other resources to help finance the U.N.’s efforts to contain the virus. His office issued an appeal on Tuesday to governments and other donors to provide "trained medical personnel, mobile laboratories, vehicles, helicopters, protective equipment, and medevac capacities." Ban welcomed recent contributions from Australia, Colombia, South Korea, and Venezuela for up to $14 million. But he said overall funding is still running short.

"The Secretary-General urges all countries that have contributed to consider what more they can do, and those who have yet to contribute to do so as a matter of urgency," the appeal read. "The only way to end the Ebola crisis is to end the epidemic at its source. The people and governments of West Africa are demonstrating significant resilience. The world has a duty to provide the assistance for which they have asked."

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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