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America’s infuriating response to the Ebola crisis

Health workers carry the body of a woman that they suspect died from the Ebola virus, in an area known as Clara Town in Monrovia, Liberia. (AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh)
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The Pentagon does not deserve any pats on the back for its announcement this week of its plans to send a $22 million, 25-bed field hospital to Liberia to help contain the Ebola outbreak that has claimed nearly 2,300 lives in West Africa. As it turns out, that hospital was never meant to treat Liberians at all.

According to this scoop from Jina Moore at BuzzFeed, “Nancy Lindborg, the Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance of U.S. Agency for International Development, which leads the U.S. government response on Ebola, clarified on the call [to journalists] that the health workers for whom the facility is meant are foreign health care workers, not Liberians.”

The Post’s Lena H. Sun’s reported the same. Jeremy Konyndyk,  director for the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance at USAID, disputed the original Buzzfeed article, tweeting that the donated facility will treat Liberian health workers. But no official statement from Lindborg or the Pentagon has been released yet to clarify.

Liberia is bearing the full brunt of the Ebola scourge, which has also hit Guinea and Sierra Leone in West Africa. Liberia alone has seen 2,000 cases of infection and almost 1,000 deaths. While the outbreak of Ebola has been steadily punishing West Africa for the better part of this year, what the world is seeing from developed nations is an outbreak of complacency, half-measures, sensationalism and stigmatization toward Africa, which is only serving to exacerbate the problem. With this latest move by the Pentagon to help only foreign workers in Liberia, the message from the United States, intended or not, rings loud and clear: African health-care workers and their patients are not our priority.

Twenty-five beds is nowhere near enough to begin meeting the needs of the countries facing the disease. In one county alone in Liberia, there is a need for 1,000 treatment beds. The county only has 240. How would anyone see 25 beds as a generous donation?

This move to construct facilities only for foreign health workers comes barely a month after President Obama hosted more than 50 African heads of state, a summit that was aimed at highlighting “the depth and breadth of the United States’ commitment to the African continent.” Global health was on the agenda and with regards to the Ebola outbreak, the White House assured all that the United States “is responding rapidly and effectively.”

Treating African health-care workers as anything less than indispensable is inexcusable. It is worth noting that the U.S. military command in Africa, or Africom, has supposedly been working with USAID since 2008 to improve the capacity of African militaries and governments to prepare for pandemics. While the focus of the Pandemic Response Program (PRP) has been on influenza, it’s a fair question to ask if any of those exercises have proved fruitful in combating Ebola thus far. Africom was established to help in counterterrorism efforts but has been met with a large amount of suspicion from Africans. If Africom appears to be lackadaisical in its approach to containing Ebola in West Africa, it risks squandering the possibility of building trust between itself and the African governments and people.

Ebola is exacting a heavy toll on West African medical personnel. Doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers represent 15 percent of deaths from the virus in Liberia. Five co-authors of a paper on Ebola, including Sheik Umar Khan, a leading doctor in charge of Sierra Leone’s Ebola response, died from the virus before the report could even be released. Each death of an African doctor, researcher or nurse represents a loss of human knowledge that the world needs to help prevent and treat future outbreaks. Additionally, losing medical staff to Ebola means fewer professionals who are knowledgeable about treating other diseases, such as Lassa fever in Sierra Leone.

This is not just an African catastrophe, but a disaster for global public health. To be sure, Ebola represents a much, much lower disease burden to the African continent than malaria, diarrhea, HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis does. But one has to wonder, what with the imposition of travel bans, (which put the countries’ economies and food supply at risk), discrimination against patients and stigmatizing, racialized media coverage, when an outbreak of an empathy and common sense will prevail against this awful virus. The United States risks undermining its own U.S-Africa leadership summit if we fail West Africa in its fight against Ebola.