While the Ebola outbreak has been spreading faster than the world’s ability to contain it, the public’s willingness to donate funds has lagged behind that for other major disasters, according to philanthropic and governmental organizations.
At the American Red Cross, for example, about $2.9 million has arrived in donations to combat Ebola, including $2.8 million from a single source, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reports that its overall appeal for funding has only been 24 percent fulfilled.
Unlike typhoons, tsunamis or earthquakes — whose lethal blow comes all at once and generally leaves medical teams to deal with only the aftermath — the Ebola outbreak has unfolded gradually, and it is still unfolding — and still killing.
Officials at nonprofit organizations said they wonder whether Ebola is almost too unprecedented and too hard to grasp compared with the sort of natural disasters that usually open most people’s wallets.
“The ironic thing about this is that, in those instances, all the damage has been done by the time the news is running,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, who is heading the federal agency’s response to the Ebola outbreak. “So there aren’t too many lives to be saved. Whereas with this sort of response, there’s actually a lot more to be done that can save people’s lives.”
The Ebola outbreak also has lacked the kind of visceral images that stir the public’s response. Although there has been no shortage of people suffering from the progressive and incurable disease, the most indelible image for many is a faceless health worker in sterile garb, hidden behind goggles, hoods and hazmat-like gowns.
“The kind of disasters that garner a lot of public support are the ones that are fast-moving and tend to look visually spectacular,” Konyndyk said.
The timing couldn’t be worse, either. Ebola is ravaging West Africa at a moment when the world’s attention has been preoccupied with the Islamic State’s spread into Syria and Iraq, a massive flood in the Balkans and a bloody rebellion in Ukraine.
“And I think part of this is it comes in the maelstrom of other scary news. You have these kinds of apocalyptic things that are all different, and they’re all kind of your worst nightmares,” said Margaret Aguirre, head of global initiatives for the International Medical Corps. “I think there’s empathy, but there is also confusion about it.”
And some people just might not know what they should do.
“When people think of the American Red Cross, they think of natural disasters. So they may not associate us with the disease response,” spokeswoman Jana Sweeny said. She said people also might think that a disease epidemic is an emergency handled by the government more than charitable organizations.
The Ebola outbreak already has killed nearly 4,500 people and infected nearly 9,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. The health agency warned Tuesday that there could be as many as 10,000 new cases a week by Dec. 1 despite signs that there has been some progress in combatting the disease.
Doctors Without Borders — which is also known by its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières — renewed its call Tuesday for governments to step in and deploy the necessary personnel and resources to contain the outbreak.
The organization, whose estimated budget until the end of 2014 is more than $53 million, does not solicit disaster-specific donations, though donors can direct that their funds go to Ebola, spokesman Tim Shenk said in an e-mail. He said the organization has received $7 million in the United States so far as part of $40 million the agency has raised worldwide for its Ebola response, including from public institutions.
A few extremely wealthy individuals and foundations have announced donations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on Wednesday committed $50 million to the fight. Meanwhile, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who is a pediatrician, announced a donation of $25 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, endowed by Microsoft’s co-founder, has launched #TackleEbola, a fundraising campaign.
Besides raising funds, nonprofit organizations have had trouble finding volunteers. Within days after an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, more than 1,500 medical personnel volunteered their services with the International Medical Corps. But with the Ebola outbreak, just a few dozen qualified personnel have been able or willing to serve so far.
Aguirre, of the International Medical Corps, said her agency has less difficulty lining up medical personnel who want to serve in conflict zones.
“It’s a gun-versus-germs principle — where you fear the thing you can’t see,” said Aguirre, whose Los Angeles-based organization has 5,300 paid staff members working in more than 30 countries.
Organizations that put first responders in the field said the response for volunteers has been slow for other reasons. Medical personnel must commit to serving longer than in other disasters, owing to the highly specialized training they must undergo before deploying and the three-week quarantine period afterward. The International Medical Corps asks volunteers to commit to six to eight weeks’ service in Africa, compared with three to four weeks in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake.
As for fundraising, the organization has received nearly $3 million so far, with a steady pickup since cases of Ebola occurred in Europe and the United States, bringing the crisis closer to home.