On September 8, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave Tony Banbury his new assignment: heading up the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response.
The deadly disease was ravaging 3 countries in Africa — and sowing terror as far away as the US.
Banbury never hesitated. The Westport resident — whose day job is assistant secretary-general for field support — had been dispatched to hot spots before. He dealt with the Haiti earthquake, conflict in the Central African Republic, and the prohibition of chemical weapons in Syria.
But this crisis was different. He had to convince a staff to follow him to a continent where a deadly epidemic raged — with no end in sight.
Over the weekend in Westport, he wrote up an action plan. More than 130 countries sponsored the resolution — a record.
“We went from mission conception to mission establishment in 6 days,” Banbury says proudly. “The UN never works that quickly.”
He flew to Africa. With a staff of “young hard-chargers,” he set up headquarters in Accra, Ghana. He worked up to 16 hours every day — literally, with no day off — for the next 4 months.
“The UN had never had an emergency health commission,” Banbury says. His group worked on multiple levels. The epidemic involved medical, political, social and humanitarian dimensions.
Usually, a UN group would gather information, assess and analyze it, create a plan, deploy personnel and equipment, then become operational. The process takes months.
Banbury’s group did all that simultaneously. The Secretary-General wanted action. They acted.
In Accra, Banbury created a command-and-control structure. He tackled tough issues, made hard decisions, negotiated with high-level diplomats.
He spent plenty of time in planes and helicopters, too. During 6 tours of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone he met with presidents; representatives of organizations like Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, WHO and USAID; and ordinary citizens. Taxi drivers, for example, drive sick people around — and have an enormous impact on the ground.
Banbury also toured treatment centers and command posts.
All international crises share certain elements — an urgency to achieve results, and unexpected complications.
But, Banbury says, this experience was much different from all others. Though Haiti’s death toll of 230,000 far surpassed that of Ebola, conditions following the earthquake “got better every day. The damage was already done.”
In Africa, Banbury explains, “it was so hard to understand where the disease was, or figure out infection rates. For a couple of months, each day was worse than the one before. And we knew that would continue for a while.”
In addition to isolating patients and finding the proper people, equipment and sites to bury the dead, Banbury’s group had to halt, then turn around numbers that rose exponentially.
“That was very hard to do,” he conceded. “But we set ambitions targets.” Thanks to his work, and a global response — including support from NGOs, governments, the US military and the UN — they succeeded.
Banbury’s assignment was supposed to end in December. But he remained in Africa over the holidays, because he wanted to set a good example for all those he had encouraged to join him.
He knew — based on news reports from Texas and New York — that some people would fear him when he returned. He called the Connecticut Department of Public Health, Westport Weston Health District and Westport Board of Education (3 of his 4 children are still in local schools).
All provided excellent support. He took his temperature twice a day, for 21 days, and reported the results. He was symptom-free.
“It’s nice to be back,” Banbury says. It was tough missing Christmas with his family, but he’s had time to sleep, read and decompress. There was praise from his UN colleagues.
Still, Banbury confesses to mixed emotions. Eradication of Ebola is unfinished. But numbers of infections and deaths continue to fall. Today, they’re at their lowest rate since last June.
Now, Banbury is back at his regular job. He spends his days worrying about Mali, South Sudan, Iraq and Boko Haram.
Unfortunately, the work of the UN assistant secretary-general for field support never ends.
Fortunately, Tony Banbury is that man.
Click below for an interview with Tony Banbury, from the Center for Strategic & International Studies.