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U.N. Ebola Chief: We Are Working 'At Full Speed'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. We turn now to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. And one of the people tasked with getting it under control Tony Banbury. The American was recently tapped to head up a new United Nations emergency response mission to manage the crisis. His agency is rushing to set up shop in Ghana's capital. Mr. Banbury addressed the U.N. Security Council this past week saying the world is way behind the race to contain the virus. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton introduces us to the man with a daunting task ahead of him.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Tony Banbury mingles in a conference room full of experts and hands-on specialists from across the U.N. agencies and partner organizations for an intensive Ebola planning conference here in Accra. Banbury tells everyone that requirements are many and urgent.

ANTHONY BANBURY: We need everything. We need people. We need money. We need helicopters. We need to make sure health care workers are getting paid. We need it all, we need it everywhere, and we need it super fast.

QUIST-ARCTON: Tony Banbury has been dispatched by the U.N. secretary general to try to better coordinate with the governments and others the battle against Ebola, which is rampaging through Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The virus has already cost thousands of lives with dire predictions of many thousands more cases before the year's out. And that, says Banbury, who's been on a whistle stop tour of the three nations, is his focus - to halt the spread of the Ebola virus.

BANBURY: The problem was it got out of control. It got way ahead of the doctors. It spread like a forest fire when the doctors were out there with small hoses.

QUIST-ARCTON: Frontline medical charity Doctors Without Borders first raised the alarm in April and has been warning for months that the Ebola epidemic is unprecedented and out-of-control. The group was among the first responders setting up Ebola units across the three affected countries. Sebastien Vidal from Doctors Without Borders recently told NPR in Liberia that they've heard enough pledges and now need these translated into action.

SEBASTIEN VIDAL: We see day after day that this is not happening. We see promises being made. We see decisions being taken, plans being drawn. And we don't see any difference here on the ground. And MSF Doctors Without Borders cannot do it alone.

BANBURY: Clearly, in retrospect, people should've seen this crisis the way MSF did - Doctors Without Borders - Medecins Sans Frontieres - their eyes were very open, and they drew the attention of the world to the Ebola crisis.

QUIST-ARCTON: Tony Banbury says he understands the frustrations of health workers who are battling to save lives, and that his new mission is there to help them and others fast.

BANBURY: Super fast. Unfortunately, the response was slow in coming, but now the United Nations is working at full speed. The penalties for delay are so high so we are in a race, there's no question about it. We are in a race against this disease.

QUIST-ARCTON: Global media headlines this past week have been dominated by criticism of a slow, inadequate and chaotic international response to the Ebola outbreak. A leaked internal draft report from the World Health Organization pointed to serious errors by the agency designated with the global task of responding to outbreaks of disease. In its defense, Tony Banbury says the WHO was set up as a policy advisory organization and not an implementing U.N. emergency health crisis agency. Former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan weighed in with his views on the BBC.

KOFI ANNAN: We took our eyes off the ball. If the crisis had hit some other region, it probably would have been handled very differently. And in fact, when you look at the evolution of the crisis, the international community really woke up when the disease got to America and Europe. And yet, we should have known that in this interconnected world, it was only a question of time.

QUIST-ARCTON: Tony Banbury argues that at the time for Ebola dissection and postmortem will come. He says for now, his priority as head of the new U.N. Ebola Emergency Response Mission in West Africa is to coordinate this massive effort, save lives and contain the virus. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Accra. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.