WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Fighting the Ebola epidemic means confronting the issue of inequality, as people in poor countries have less access to knowledge and infrastructure for treating the sick and containing the deadly virus, the head of the World Bank said.
Three poor countries in West Africa – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – have seen their health systems overwhelmed by the worst outbreak of the disease on record. The epidemic has killed at least 3,000 people in the region.
“Now, thousands of people in these (three) countries are dying because, in the lottery of birth, they were born in the wrong place,” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said in prepared remarks at Howard University in Washington.
“This … shows the deadly cost of unequal access to basic services and the consequences of our failure to fix this problem.”
Kim, the first public health expert to lead the World Bank, said the development institution was committed to addressing income inequality as well as the inequality of access to things like food, clean water and healthcare.
Kim spoke ahead of the IMF-World Bank meetings in Washington next week, where the bank will focus on its goal of shared prosperity, or boosting the incomes of the poorest 40 percent of people in each country.
The World Bank has devoted $400 million to fight the spread of Ebola and improve health systems in West Africa. It estimated the outbreak could sap billions of dollars from economies in the region by the end of next year if it is not contained.
After a slow initial response, foreign governments – including the United States, Britain, France, China and Cuba – are also now providing funds, supplies and personnel to the affected parts of West Africa.
But health experts said the assistance was still insufficient and not arriving quickly enough to halt the spread of the deadly hemorrhagic fever.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimated last week that, in a worst-case scenario, the number of infections could reach 1.4 million late January, compared with about 6,000 today.
Kim said the delays in fighting Ebola echoed past problems in quickly getting effective treatment for HIV to Africa.
“It has been painful to see us replay old failures from previous epidemics,” Kim said. “Concerned citizens need to demand immediate deployments of capital and human resources to the affected countries.
“Otherwise, thousands more will die needless deaths and an economic catastrophe may take place.”