Amb. Bellamy Discusses Upcoming Ebola Panel

March 10, 2015

William Mark Bellamy

Leading up to our March 16 panel on 'Countering Ebola,' Amb. Bellamy shares lessons learned as the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya about the role of the U.S. in global public health emergencies.

As the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya (2003-2006), you supervised the U.S. government's largest foreign HIV/AIDS program. What lessons did you learn there that could be applied to the fight against Ebola?

From my experiences in Kenya, I’d draw three lessons applicable to the Ebola outbreak. First, identify and work closely with trusted local partners. Sometimes these are not governments or health ministries, but hospitals and clinics, churches, charitable groups, non-governmental organizations. These are the front-line defenders, and it is vital that we reinforce them vigorously. Second, because emotions will inevitably be running high we must use all our diplomatic skills. We must listen, empathize and negotiate in order to define our role and enable cooperation. Third, we must report the situation on the ground fully and accurately to Washington, so that policy makers know what we (and they) are actually up against.

This year's Ebola outbreak seemed to draw a different sort of attention from the U.S. media, perhaps because there was the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S. Do you think the type of attention received this year helped or hurt the fight of Ebola in Africa, and why?

Intense media focus on the Ebola outbreak helped energize American reactions, which was a good thing. In the end, Congress and the Obama administration worked together and made the right moves, and the American people supported our role combatting the epidemic, including the use of military assets.

Unfortunately, we also saw some regrettable grandstanding by national and local elected officials. Some of this was based on fear and ignorance; some of it was political posturing. One lesson to draw from it: whenever politicians demand simple, swift or drastic solutions to complex emergencies, it is wisest to ignore them.

What should the U.S. government's role be in the future for countering Ebola, and why are health programs important to international diplomacy?

No other nation has our breadth and depth of capabilities in responding to international public health emergencies. For the foreseeable future, the U.S. will be the world’s premier first responder. Even more important, however, is to help poorer nations, those states most at risk, develop their own public health infrastructure. To accomplish both goals, we need to continue funding fully our world-class public health institutions like CDC and NIH.

One of the most potent symbols of America as a force for good in the world is our global health diplomacy, whether leading the fight against HIV/AIDS, finding new ways to defeat malaria or our response to Ebola.

The panelists on March 16th bring a wealth of knowledge as strategists and healthcare workers. Why is it important for the Simmons community to learn about Ebola from those who have been fighting the epidemic first-hand?

It is important for our students to understand that the Ebola crisis is complex, multi-faceted. It is not just a matter of caring for the sick and preventing new infections. It is a question of helping nations that have been disrupted from top to bottom. Those responders on the ground, those dealing face-to-face with the crisis, understand best its complexity and how to deal with it.

For more information on March 16th's panel, please see our calendar listing for Countering Ebola.