Remarks at Global Health Security Agenda Summit

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Department of the Treasury
Washington, DC
September 26, 2014

Sylvia, thank you very much. I couldn’t hear a word out there so I was entirely presumptuous and said, “That must be me.” (Laughter.) Thank you.

I’m delighted to be here with all of you and appreciate Sylvia’s leadership on this and I think she summed it up best the other day when she said that there isn’t a Democrat way or a Republican way to solve Ebola. And obviously, I think everybody in this room understands that. Solving this crisis is going to require all hands on deck, and every single one of us are profoundly grateful for Susan Rice’s leadership, the President’s leadership, and this meeting here today, which builds on the meetings that we’ve just had in New York, and a particularly important meeting yesterday, which I think you saw the President speak at in which he challenged leaders all across the world to really rise to this enormously challenging and vexing moment.

I want to recognize Dr. Melvin Korkor from Liberia. Dr. Korkor has a remarkable story to tell, and you’ll hear a little bit more about it in a moment, but just quickly I’ll just share it with you. When he first contracted Ebola, which he self-diagnosed after he had been working with a nurse who contracted it, and he then isolated himself, quarantined himself and took certain measures. But an American doctor told him he had a 1-in-10 chance of surviving. Well, Dr. Korkor was determined to be the one of the 10 and he drank a dozen liters of water a day, he held his nose while he ate so that the smell of food wouldn’t make him throw up. He asked for his Bible and he read Psalm 91 and found comfort and inspiration in the words that surely shall deliver – the Lord shall deliver us “from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.”

It was no exaggeration to suggest that tragically, we are facing West Africa’s pestilence now and potentially even broader if we don’t take the right steps. The scenes are heart-wrenching – men and women dying in the streets; children orphaned, left to assume adult responsibilities at a tender age; pregnant mothers being turned away from hospitals and clinics that are on the verge of collapse. And then there are the volunteers – the nurses, the doctors, all of them putting themselves at risk to fight a disease that currently – because as everybody understands here, there’s a difference between what is happening to people without adequate capacity to care and to diagnose versus what is happening today but which currently kills about half of the people that it infects.

So for the moment, this is SARS on steroids. And we ignore the gravity of this peril at our own crisis and our own peril. Why? Because everybody here understands that if we don’t take concerted action without a very significant intervention, which the President underscored yesterday at the UN, without countries doing more than the normal and doing it fast, this can spiral out of control. That’s not an idle warning. And we know that it presents us with not just a global health crisis, but it also presents us with a human – with a security crisis. Already this epidemic has shaken Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea to their very foundations – with genuine, significant, strategic, and economic implications. If left unaddressed, Ebola has the potential to cause instability the likes of which we haven’t seen since Liberia’s civil war, and that is why we have to act and why we have to act now.

So not only do we need to help countries in West Africa beat back the epidemic – which we can do if we respond properly – but we also need to look ahead and think about what this means, what this underscores, and think about the long-term imperatives. This epidemic’s severity is just one symptom of uneven global development – inequity in health delivery systems, extreme poverty, and crumbling public health systems. So in the short term, yes, we need emergency containment. But in the long term, we need to help the hardest-hit countries build the kind of health systems and infrastructure that will allow them to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to the next infectious disease, to any other outbreak, to stop those outbreaks in the first place before they become epidemics.

And the costs should tell us a lot about the nature of this challenge and the imperative. We know that already some 3,000-plus have died in West Africa and potentially hundreds of thousands more at risk. I assume all of you are familiar with and have been – seen the curve and the dramatic impact of what happens by January if we don’t do what we need to do now at the end of September. We know that hospitals and clinics are teetering on the brink of collapse and that already-strained public health systems are being stretched to the breaking point. We know that canceled flights and closed borders are wreaking economic havoc on the hardest-hit countries, showing that – slow down the relief efforts and response efforts and actually set back other things, like tourism, for decades conceivably.

Yesterday I talked with President Kenyatta of Kenya, who informed me they haven’t closed their border and they won’t, but a lot of countries have. And we understand how many flights have been canceled, which disturbs the capacity to move people and goods. We know that farmer stocks are plummeting and food prices are skyrocketing, and this in and of itself creates tension, instability, and a perfect playing field for predators.

We know that the hardest-hit countries, countries that for years were on a path to economic recovery and prosperity, are now facing up to 809 million in lost growth, and that is today’s measurement without this cascade of interconnected events taking place. For a continent that’s been starting to turn the corner in an incredibly exciting way and realize long-promised potential, Ebola could set back the development capacity of whole nations for decades.

We just had 40 African leaders in Washington during the course of the summer, all of them and all of us extolling the possibilities of economic development and growth. Seven of the ten fastest-growing economies of the world are in Africa today, but what happens if we don’t deal with this? Only two months ago we were heralding the extraordinary opportunity, and Ebola threatens to set that future back by years.

And we know there are other challenges of security. We know that eight members of an Ebola awareness team were kidnapped and killed in Guinea. We know that a burial team was attacked in Sierra Leone. And perhaps most troubling, we know that while Ebola itself takes lives, it’s also fear and indifference that are this epidemic’s best allies. During the SARS and H1N1 flu epidemics, it was fear of contagion that actually accounted for as much as 90 percent of the total economic impact. In four months alone, SARS inflicted 30 billion in costs, and Ebola has the potential to inflict even more.

So our mission here today and in the days ahead is clear. First we need to control the outbreak. President Obama has acted swiftly, boldly, and appropriately to do exactly that. We’ve already deployed some 4,000 troops to West Africa, and we’re dispatching our public health workers. We’re establishing a military command center in Liberia. We’re creating an air bridge to get health workers and medical supplies into West Africa. We’re training thousands of health workers and distributing supplies and information kits to families, and we’re partnering with Nigeria and Senegal, which have contained Ebola.

Second, we need to galvanize an international effort, as I mentioned earlier. Just like ISIL, this disease respects no borders and requires a global coalition in order to stamp it out. And that’s why President Obama and I took part yesterday in the high-level meeting on Ebola at the UN and secured additional support. International organizations need to kick into the highest gear ever and match capabilities with needs on the ground. And we’ve also begun to work intensely with our partners to provide lifesaving support.

Canada is sending protective equipment and mobile laboratories. China is sending medical workers. Turkey is providing medical supplies. Britain is sending troops and humanitarian experts. France is sending health experts and medical supplies. And yesterday, the foreign minister of Japan responded to my request for creative thinking about how to protect people, and they have offered 500,000 light-protective suits that had been prepared for SARS. And these initiatives underscore the response that’s beginning to take hold. But it also underscores that there’s a role for almost every single country to play.

Finally we need to make building long-term healthcare capacity in West Africa and frankly around the world a strategic security priority. We have to contain this crisis and coordinate the global response. But make no mistake, unless we help countries build their public health systems that can manager future outbreaks, we’re never going to break out of this tragic cycle of years past, cycles where outbreaks lead to more fear, more fear leads to more suffering, more loss of life with the instability that comes from this cycle. And it is an attack ultimately on the human infrastructure of these countries, and it steals progress from everybody. That’s why the global health security agenda and the action plans that we’ve adopted today are so important. And that’s why we remain committed to the global partnership against the spread of weapons and materials of mass destruction which provide support for bio-security and increasingly for public health.

We all know that health affects the livelihoods of individuals and economic growth and ultimately the development potential of nations. And the health of others affects the health of all of us. Whether it’s SARS or avian flu or even a biological agent, the lives of Americans depend on the ability of other countries to detect, contain, and treat outbreaks within their borders. Every American has an interest in what we are doing here. It is not something over there; it is something that connects everybody all of the time.

A disease like extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis can travel as fast as the fastest jetliner, and in an interconnected world, we invest in global health not simply as a matter of charity or as a matter of more responsibility, but we do it as a matter of national security. So all of us need to take this challenge and take this moment and make it one of transformation – not just dealing with the current outbreak, but building the capacity to better address future crises, and frankly there is enough inspiration in the acts of so many for all of us to get this job done.

Kelly Sites is a nurse from Michigan. When she heard about the outbreak in Liberia, she packed her bags, she left the comforts of home, she spent weeks working in an isolation unit in Monrovia. She tended to the sick, she prepared the dead for burial, she educated people in the local communities about safe practices. Kelly calls Ebola a lonely, isolating disease, but this did not stop her from going to Liberia. And when asked why she took the risk, Kelly said simply, “This is my one little way of doing something.” My friends, that’s courage. That’s also an exercise of global citizenship, and all of us need to take confidence from people like Kelly, from those of us who have the expertise to understand you can be cured, you can prevent yourself from getting this, you can make the difference. And all of us here have come here in order to make sure that we do that.

It’s my pleasure now to introduce His Excellency Jeremiah Sulunteh, Liberia’s ambassador to the United States. (Applause.)