WASHINGTON — Catholic officials are welcoming President Barack Obama’s plan to expand medical and military resources to combat the deadly Ebola epidemic in West Africa, though they caution that more might have to be done.
“This is a huge scale-up of resources, but it’s still unclear as to whether it will be enough,” said Steven Hilbert, a foreign-policy adviser for Africa and global development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace.
Hilbert also told the Register that other nations and relief agencies will need to contribute additional resources and personnel to prevent hundreds of thousands of more people dying from Ebola.
“It has to be an all-hands-on-deck kind of response,” Hilbert said.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced that it will send 3,000 military personnel — mostly logistical-support technicians and engineers — to Liberia to help build 17 new Ebola treatment centers, each with 100 beds, as well as training up to 500 health-care workers a week on how to deal with the crisis.
The White House’s plan also increases the numbers of doctors and health-care workers who will be sent to West Africa from several American agencies, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. military will open a joint command center in Monrovia, Liberia, to coordinate the international response to fight the disease. Meanwhile, the United States will provide about 400,000 Ebola home health and treatment kits to Liberia.
Obama had been under pressure to do more to confront the epidemic, which has killed at least 2,400 people in West Africa and could spread to other continents if not quickly contained. According to United Nations estimates, there have been more than 4,900 confirmed cases of Ebola in the region; the cases have doubled over the last three weeks.
“It’s spreading out of control. We have to act fast,” Obama said during a Tuesday visit to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “We cannot dawdle on this one. We have to move with force.”
‘Turn for the Worse’
Meredith Dyson, a health-program manager who has overseen Catholic Relief Services’ response to the crisis since it broke out in West Africa this past March, told the Register that the situation “has taken a turn for the worse” in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the three hardest-hit countries.
“It has been rather overwhelming. We’re glad to see the leadership and commitment from the United States, in the hope that things will get better soon,” said Dyson, who is stationed in Senegal.
“We’re glad to see the president’s plan includes some of the urgent needs, like medical care, equipment and logistical support,” Dyson added. “Things have broken down on the ground. It almost feels like the times of the civil war; that is how stressed people are; that is how much services have kind of stopped. People can’t get routine health care because the hospitals are either overwhelmed with Ebola or the medical staff is too scared to come to work because they are too scared they will get Ebola.”
“We’re hopeful that, by taking this step forward, the Americans are going to lead the way; and, hopefully, other governments will also step up and assist Sierra Leone and Guinea as well. This is a transnational issue,” Dyson added.
International Assistance Needed
The U.N. Humanitarian Affairs Office held a briefing Tuesday in Geneva on the epidemic. The delegation from the Holy See highlighted the efforts of Catholic leaders in West Africa, who have encouraged ill people to seek help from designated health centers and to respect the need to isolate patients in order to break the cycle of transmission. Catholic bishops have also adapted some pastoral practices in order to avoid physical touching during worship services.
“The U.N. agencies and the ambassadors of the affected countries all said that they desperately need international assistance, including the deployment of health-care workers, including physicians and nurses, whether they are civilian or military,” Msgr. Robert Vitillo, an attaché at the permanent observer mission of the Holy See to the U.N. in Geneva, told the Register.
Moira Monacelli, a Caritas Italy regional director for West Africa, told the Register that the region’s humanitarian crisis is “becoming very bleak.”
“The situation is getting worse by the day in these countries. The health structures and the mobilization of resources, until now, has not been enough to deal with the crisis, with the numbers of new cases growing day by day,” said Monacelli, who has worked in the region for seven years. Monacelli also said that there are more people diagnosed with Ebola in the region than there are isolationist treatment centers.
“The centers are overloaded. This is one of the very important issues,” she said. “According to the information we have, the resources being provided by the United States will be very important to the health mobilization, the treatment needs and the beds, because what they have now is not enough. The mobilization of the international community is really, really crucial to respond to this emergency.”
U.S. Filling Huge Void
The USCCB’s Hilbert said the U.S. government is filling a huge void in the region, which until now has seen Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) supplying the brunt of the personnel and resources to fight the epidemic.
“The scale of the resources, the number of people the United States military has that they can throw at this, is just now beginning to reach levels that would be commensurate with the scale of this outbreak,” Hilbert said, adding that people in West Africa are dying in the streets outside of jam-packed hospitals because they have nowhere else to go.”
“This has to be cut off as soon as possible, because, otherwise, we’ll be seeing not just 20,000 possible cases, but we’ll be getting into the six figures, and that’s not acceptable,” Hilbert said. “We’ll be asking the U.S. government that, as they respond and see the evolution of this epidemic, they keep track of the resources need and continue to ramp-up where needed.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.