Some (perhaps) good news this week: The Ebola infection rates in Liberia have fallen, from 80 cases a day during the peak of the infection to 20 to 30 cases a day.
Some bad news: A lull in infection rates is actually a dangerous time, both in terms of the trends of the outbreak, as well as in the danger in complacency. Infections could spread to more remote areas.
Some potentially really bad news: While rates of new infections are falling in Liberia, in Sierra Leone, 30 bodies were collected from Koinadugu, a province that was previously thought to have contained the virus. Reports estimate that in parts of Sierra Leone, Ebola is spreading nine times faster than it was two months ago. As the rainy season is ending in West Africa, experts fear that travel between affected countries might increase and that the virus could reenter areas previously thought to be Ebola-free.
An interesting non-factor in the downturn in Ebola cases in Liberia: Not a single U.S.-promised treatment bed has been delivered to the country. Not a one. The military has promised to build 17 treatment centers containing 100 beds each in Liberia. The United States is considering the option of initially opening some centers with as few as 10 beds in Liberia due to the downturn in new infection rates. This potential strategy is questionable, as 4,388 beds are required across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, and only 1,126 beds have been provided thus far. The site of the U.S. treatment center in Ganta, Liberia, is just “an overgrown grassland next to an abandoned airstrip on the Guinean border,” reports The Post’s Kevin Sieff. USAID’s $22 million, 25-bed military hospital, built in partnership with the Department of Defense, is scheduled to open in the next few days. The hospital is only for aid workers.
President Obama has requested $6.2 billion in emergency funds to fight Ebola, which includes $2.1 billion for USAID and the State Department’s efforts in West Africa, and $2.43 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services. Will this money help get more beds into the most affected West African countries faster? On the flip side, is spending $2.43 billion on 50 regional Ebola treatment centers in the United States, which has reported only a handful of Ebola cases, the most prudent course of action?
Beyond the United States’ yet-to-be-fully-realized efforts, the international response has been spotty. Hundreds of millions of dollars were pledged in September, but fear, hysteria, quarantines and stigmatization have no doubt hampered the response efforts from developed countries. In Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, countries that were already suffering from a shortage of health-care workers, fear has led to the perverse effect of having fewer health-care workers willing to aid in the fight against the disease. Even the U.N.’s 1 billion Ebola Fund has only received $100,000 cash to date, and the clinic set up by the heralded Cuban team of medical personnel sent to Sierra Leone was delayed for weeks.
Several factors are said to be contributing to Liberia’s slowdown of Ebola:
“ … the opening of more treatment beds, breakthroughs in convincing Liberians that Ebola is real and very dangerous, widespread acceptance of ‘safe burials’ and cremations that prevent families from touching highly infectious corpses, and the mobilization of entire communities to quickly identify and isolate infected individuals before they can transmit the virus.”
The lesson? Africans, at least, aren’t just sitting around waiting to be saved by the United States or United Nations.
The lull in infection rates in Liberia, and the continuing gaps in international responses, highlights the importance of indigenous community-based organizations that are run by Liberians, Guineans or Sierra Leoneans. These groups are often very small, not always media savvy and, at times, find themselves overwhelmed by the agendas and priorities of large international organizations or ignored by donors and media. “Africans are responding,” said Solome Lemma, co-founder of Africa Responds, an organization aiming to target grassroots groups in the three affected countries. “Even once new infections fall, we need to think about the health-care workers that were lost, the children who have lost their families, the individuals who have lost their livelihoods, the survivors who now live with the stigma of having had Ebola and in many cases are shunned by their communities.” In other words, beyond stemming the spread of the virus itself, these local groups are on the front lines of the response. THINK, one of the organizations that Africa Responds supports, aims to train foster parents and alternative-care providers affected by the virus.
Lemma noted that she is encouraged to hear that WHO and MSF are talking about community outreach, but said she hopes that the work of community organizations will be supported. “They are truly the foot soldiers that are winning the battle against Ebola, and as we talk about the importance of community responses to the downturn, it is imperative we tell their stories.”
Other Africans in the diaspora have been stepping up as well.
Memuna Janney, a Sierra Leonean British national, created Lunchbox, a delivery service effort to distribute meals to the doors of people affected by a government-mandated lockdown in Sierra Leone last month. These efforts are notable, especially as the latest dispatches from Sierra Leone indicate that thousands of citizens are not getting the food aid they need from the government in partnership with the World Food Program. As a result, these people are breaking quarantine to venture out in search of food.
As the Ebola hysteria dies down, it is imperative to remember that the world is still in a race against time with the virus. Institutions such as USAID, WHO and MSF should be held to account for their promises on the ground in West Africa. At the same time, highlighting the successful efforts of local Africans who are on the front lines is crucial. The advantage of African-led groups is that they were there before Ebola, and they will be there once the international community packs up to go home.