Ebola Weakens Already Fragile Nations

 Ebola Weakens Already Fragile Nations

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As the Ebola virus decimates their beloved country, Liberian ambassador to the United States Jeremiah C. Sulunteh and Marion Parker Cassell Nelson watch with horror and growing concern.

Since March, the tiny West African country has emerged as ground zero for Ebola, with the vast majority of cases and fatalities occurring there. According to the World Health Organization, the outbreak has infected more than 4,900 West Africans and killed 2,400.

Over the last several days, WHO senior officials have warned that the virus will continue to spread exponentially in Liberia, as thousands of new cases are expected to come to light over the next three weeks.

“Some time in March, the government was able to discover Ebola that we understand started in Guinea,” said Sulunteh during a Sept. 13 interview. “With porous borders, Ebola spread to Lofa County. Liberian people were still in a state of denial. A lot of people took it for granted, didn’t take it seriously.”

“Now, Liberians all over are overwhelmed. We’re all heartbroken. We’re broken by this epidemic. It’s taken people’s lives and crumbled our economy. We’re so very concerned about the pace of Ebola. There are 1,200 dead, including 82 health care workers.”

Sulunteh said 14 years of war in his country left in its wake a broken, tattered infrastructure.

“Those 14 years took a toll on our roads, hospitals, water supplies, electricity grids, schools – all was destroyed. The government is taking the broken pieces and trying to restore our country.”

He said death is everywhere, and groups are assigned to find and remove bodies from communities, homes, parking lots and shopping centers.

Nelson, a Liberian native, reflected his anguish.

“I’m very troubled by what’s going on. I talk to people there every day,” she said. “I’m in Liberia often. There’s a sense of helplessness because you want to be there, want to help. You can’t just go, though. We’ve never experienced this before. It hurts. It really hurts our citizens to hear this. We’re praying, but it’s not just God. We need financial and medical help.”

“I was there earlier this year. People need food, beds and proper clothing to take care of the patients. I understand that when some people go to clinics, there are no beds.”

Sulunteh said 12 of Liberia's 15 counties have confirmed cases of Ebola, a hemorrhagic disease that’s transmitted through contact with victims’ infected bodily fluids. Before the outbreak, WHO officials said, Liberia had only one doctor to treat every 100,000 patients in the country, whose population stands at 4.4 million. To date, the WHO said, 152 health care workers in the country have been infected and 79 have died, which has worsened the ratio of doctors to patients significantly.

Sulunteh said Liberian government officials have been in consultation with what he called the Manu River Union on ways to contain Ebola. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone share a common border along the Manu River. He said the group has gotten bigger with the addition of members from the Economic Community of West African States and that there have been regional and strategic meetings around the issue.

“The fear is that if it’s not contained properly, it could have a spillover effect on neighboring countries,” he said.

Here at home, Sia Barbara Kamara heads an Ebola response team that is raising money, materials and resources and publicizing the need for more help.

“The health care system is very, very fragile. They have one dental hygienist in the country,” said Kamara, who has been working in Liberia since 2010 to build an early-childhood education infrastructure and visited Liberia in May. “There are lots of people who stayed there during the war, so they’re traumatized. Schools were not functioning, and we have a generation of uneducated people. Liberia has the resources – diamonds, gold, iron ore, rubber – but Liberians don’t control these resources. Eighty-five percent of the people are unemployed. You see a lot of people not working, but they’re trying to live from day to day.”

The Ghana Broadcasting Station said Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama, chairman of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government, visited Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Sept. 16. He held talks with other heads of state about subregional and international interventions as a way to support affected countries in their efforts to deal with the outbreak.

Mahama’s working with the United Nations to set up an international logistics center in Accra that will serve as the main hub for the fight against Ebola in West Africa. He also donated food on behalf of the government and people of Ghana at each stop.

Nelson and Sulunteh expressed their hope that the U.S. and other members of the global community will step up and help their beleaguered country. In recent days, the U.S. and Britain have ratcheted up their involvement.

President Barack Obama announced Monday that the U.S. is sending 3,000 troops to Liberia, where the U.S. military will set up a command post in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. He also announced $100 million in resources to fight Ebola. Meanwhile, the State Department plans to send 160,000 hazmat bodysuits and 5,000 body bags to Liberia.

The Obama administration had been under steady criticism for its seemingly hands-off attitude as the epidemic spread. On Sept. 7, the president said during an interview on “Meet the Press” that Ebola poses a significant national security threat.

The Associated Press and Britain’s Daily Mail are reporting that Britain has donated 25 million pounds and is sending troops to West Africa. On Friday, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked for $600 million to fight the disease, and Microsoft co-founders Paul Allen and Bill Gates recently donated more than $60 million. Officials from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said the $50 million it’s offering includes $10 million the foundation previously committed for emergency operations, treatment and research. A portion of that money will go toward strengthening the infrastructures of existing health care systems in affected countries.

Of that money, $5 million went to WHO for emergency operations, research and development. In addition, $5 million went to the U.S. Fund for UNICEF to support efforts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to purchase medical supplies, coordinate response efforts and spread information.

Sulunteh said he and his country are grateful for all that the U.S. and the international community have done for Liberia, but he also said Liberia’s future hangs in the balance.

“The issue of food is overwhelming. When you quarantine people, you restrict their movements. That means that farmers can’t go to their fields and people cannot go out to search for food. The economy is receding, and the finance minister announced a few days ago that we’re in recession. The next challenge will be how to revive the economy.”