Putting a Band-Aid On Ebola

When the dreaded Ebola virus began infecting people in the Sierra Leone town of Kenema, Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan and his team were on the front lines. 

He was jovial but forceful. When he walked into a room everyone looked to him for direction and he gave it decisively, Daniel Bausch, an American doctor who worked with Khan told the Associated Press.

But then Khan tested positive for Ebola at the end of July and died soon after. He is one of at least two leading doctors in Sierra Leone who have died in the outbreak, which has also hit Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal. The World Health Organization says the disease has sickened a higher proportion of medical staff than any other on record, with 240 contracting Ebola and more than half of them dying.

The toll on health workers was felt immediately by grieving and frightened colleagues and by patients who had fewer people to attend to them, and it will likely set back health care systems — poorly equipped amid rampant poverty to begin with — for years to come.

“These are people who were the backbone” of efforts to improve struggling health systems, said Bausch, a professor of tropical medicine at Tulane University. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone “are trying to dig themselves out of years of stalled or retrograde development and making some progress. This is setting them back immeasurably.”

According to Doctors Without Borders Director of Operations Bart Janssens, the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa is “out of control.” Echoing Janssen’s concern, World Health Organization director-general Dr. Margaret Chan called the epidemic “the largest, most severe and most complex outbreak in the nearly four-decade history of this disease.”

The  death toll in West Africa has reached a reported 1,552, and is likely to go higher. WHO estimates that another 20,000 victims will be infected in the next several months; that will lead to thousands more fatalities (the disease has a 90% fatality rate).

Besides the horrific human toll, the epidemic threatens to disrupt already fragile African economies. As whole villages, towns and cities come under quarantine, transport of produce and products is at a standstill, causing farmers to lose their markets and consumers to be threatened with starvation.

Fighting the current outbreak of the disease in Africa will require hundreds if not thousands of epidemiological experts from WHO, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Doctors Without Borders, and other NGO’s to treat the infected, train medical staff, and teach precautionary measures to avoid infection from the scourge.

All this will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. In the U.S. alone, tens of millions will have to be allocated to pay medical personnel, equip labs, and set up treatment centers. Additionally, the World Bank has pledged $200 million in aid to the afflicted African countries.

The U.S. and as well as other Western nations have been criticized by some NGOs and African governments for not being quick enough in sending necessary epidemiological expertise to Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea. While that criticism is somewhat justified, it’s also illuminating.

We don’t hear any clamoring for the world’s second-largest economic power, China, to send its medical teams to Liberia. We don’t hear any pleas for aid to the oil-rich countries of Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Kuwait. (Qatar sends millions to support terrorist groups like Hamas, but hasn’t offered one nickel of their billions in petrodollars to West Africa). It is instinctively understood that when human dignity is not a cornerstone of a nation’s own laws and governance, there is no sense of responsibility to help in a humanitarian disaster anywhere else.

The lack of human rights is also a fundamental problem in Africa itself. Africa has enormous resources, but when they are in the clutches of despots there is little investment in health, education, or the general welfare of the people. Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the nations hit hardest so far with Ebola, are not free countries and are rife with corruption. Liberia, stated a U.S. State Department Report in 2013, is a country where “officials engage in corruption with impunity.”

Without a public health-care system, infections easily run rampant. According to the World Bank, Guinea spends an absurd $32 per capita on health care. (The U.S. spends $9,000.) Poverty thwarts these nations from spending more, but poverty can be ameliorated if governments would be reformed. For example, Zimbabwe was once a food exporter; under the tyrannical Mugabe regime, it has been at times at the brink of starvation. Sierra Leone is one of leading sources of precious gems, but most of the money that flows in from the diamond trade has been used to fund a wide variety of illegal activities.

Whatever humanitarian aid Africa needs to fight its latest scourge it should get as quickly as possible. However, what Africa badly needs is a long-term solution to its problems. Simply addressing the current crisis will not prevent the ones that are bound to crop up in the future. The West should consider tying any future aid to government reform.