As Ebola fight grows, some countries are noticeably absent

Annick Girardin, center, French development secretary, arrives in Macenta, Guinea Conakry, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. Girardin, who is on a three-day visit to the Ebola-stricken country, officially opened the Macenta Ebola treatment center, built by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and the French Red Cross and financed by France at a cost of 11 million euro (14 million US$).
Annick Girardin, center, French development secretary, arrives in Macenta, Guinea Conakry, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. Girardin, who is on a three-day visit to the Ebola-stricken country, officially opened the Macenta Ebola treatment center, built by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and the French Red Cross and financed by France at a cost of 11 million euro (14 million US$). AP

Despite the United States’ diplomatic arm-twisting, international health experts are warning that the international response to the deadly Ebola outbreak remains dangerously inadequate to meet the needs on the ground.

The experts point to a number of powerful countries that haven’t joined in the effort to combat Ebola, amid a belief that spotty international assistance is hampering progress toward arresting the spread of the disease, which shows signs of slowing in Liberia but continues to accelerate in Guinea and Sierra Leone, the other two hard-hit West African nations.

The United States has committed hundreds of millions of dollars and an expected 3,000 military personnel to the effort, and it, along with China and the United Kingdom, forms the three main pillars to the international response, aid workers say. But other countries have remained aloof.

The World Health Organization has received only a fraction of the billion-dollar international request it made for donations to fight Ebola. One international aid group, Oxfam, this week launched a name-and-shame campaign that calls out powerful nations that haven’t contributed to the efforts.

Shannon Scribner, Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy manager, named Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Turkey as nations that hadn’t contributed. Other countries that have donated but “could do more,” Scribner said, include France, Italy, India, Japan, Russia and Brazil.

“It’s really unacceptable,” Scribner said Wednesday on a media conference call arranged by InterAction, an umbrella group for humanitarian nonprofits. “A lot of pledges, but that doesn’t help people on the ground unless it turns into commitments.”

“We cannot afford to let up, and we cannot afford to do this alone,” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said Thursday at a congressional hearing on the Ebola response. “Containment will fail in the absence of a robust international effort. Other donors and the U.N. need to step up, just as we’re stepping up.”

Oxfam’s news release introducing its “shaming list” underlined the shortages in aid still playing out in the Ebola hot zones of West Africa.

“Right now, there are only 12 operational laboratories in the three countries but 28 are needed,” according to the release. “There are only 140 burial teams yet 528 are required. Of the planned 4,707 beds in Ebola treatment centers, only 22 percent are operational, which the World Health Organization says is due to a lack of foreign medical teams. Just 30 of the 50 foreign medical teams needed are there.”

Humanitarian agencies involved in the Ebola effort offer a variety of reasons for why countries have failed to contribute. Many would-be donors in and near the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for example – already are giving heavily in response to the Syrian humanitarian crisis. Contrarian Russia, they say, hasn’t donated much to either the Syria or the Ebola campaigns. For Mexico and Argentina, the issue appears to be proximity – they’re just too far from the virus’ nerve center to view it as threatening.

“This is something that potentially affects the health safety of our globe. This is not something that should be a unilateral response,” said Helene Gayle, the CEO of the international humanitarian nonprofit CARE USA, who also spent two decades at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re not doing enough anywhere yet, and the longer we don’t mount an all-out campaign that treats this as an urgent crisis, we’ll continue to see it spread,” she added.

President Barack Obama made a $6.2 billion emergency funding request for the anti-Ebola campaign, including $1.2 billion to protect Americans at home. The United States already had pledged a billion dollars, authorized the deployment of 4,000 troops and dispatched hundreds of medical professionals to provide treatment and training.

This week, the Pentagon reduced the number of troops committed to the Ebola campaign to 3,000, with defense officials explaining that local partners were providing more help than was earlier expected. Some 2,200 U.S. forces already are in Liberia, where on Monday the first of 17 U.S.-built treatment centers opened.

Representatives of partner nations, corporations and international nonprofits such as Doctors Without Borders and the International Medical Corps also are working aggressively against Ebola, often working in risky, harsh conditions toward the agreed-upon goal known as “70-70-60” – to isolate 70 percent of cases and safely bury 70 percent of the dead within 60 days. The 90-day target is 100 percent isolation and safe burials by January, a goal that officials say can only be met with exponentially more support from around the world.

One trailblazer in the global response was Cuba, whose decision in September to dispatch more than 150 medical professionals was, at the time, the largest offer of a foreign medical team from a single country, according to the World Health Organization.

Other countries gradually followed suit, pledging money, supplies and health workers to help in the crisis, from oil-rich Persian Gulf states to the world’s second-largest economy and Africa’s biggest trade partner, China.

China has provided $123 million in assistance, is building a 100-bed treatment center in Liberia and will send 480 medical professionals to staff it. The United Kingdom has committed $350 million to tackle Ebola and already has more than 800 military personnel in Sierra Leone, where the British government is rolling out 700 treatment beds to accommodate nearly 9,000 patients over several months.

The Obama administration has praised China’s efforts, and the issue was a top agenda item during President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Beijing.

“Ebola is an area where what we said to the Chinese is, there’s both the commitments you can kick in here on Ebola with respect to money and health care workers and infrastructure but also how we’re thinking about infectious disease going forward,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, speaking to reporters Tuesday in Beijing.

The European Commission announced last week that member countries had exceeded a pledge goal, raising more than a billion euros. Individual European nations also have offered other forms of support, though, again, the contributions are nowhere near the American commitments. Exasperated humanitarian workers have said they prefer the more nimble U.S. military for logistics and other frustrations of the field.

“I think it’s pretty sad that the German military’s been unable to make deliveries, because their air force is so run down and out of condition that none of their flights have managed to make it from Germany all the way to Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea,” Laurie Garrett, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on Ebola and is a senior global health fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, said on a media call last month. “And that kind of points even more strongly to the disproportionate capacities of the American armed forces.”

Other countries are sending mixed messages in their responses. Take Australia, which National Security Adviser Susan Rice said could “do more, quite frankly.” The government pledged $20 million to staff a British-built health center in Sierra Leone but received a fresh round of criticism when reports emerged that only one in five of the 240-person staff would be Australian.

Aid agencies also have criticized Australia’s travel restrictions on medical workers who want to travel to West Africa to lend their expertise. News reports this week quoted Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten as saying that it was an embarrassment for Australia “to be dragged kicking and screaming to tackle this killer disease.”

African nations have received similar criticism. In response to accusations that they weren’t doing enough to contain the crisis, top African business leaders this month pledged $28.5 million to the African Union for medical workers and other initiatives on the continent.

“You would always love to see a larger international response, but it shouldn’t be an excuse for us not to do it because others aren’t,” said Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan’s Purse, a North Carolina-based Christian relief organization that’s sent 350 workers and nearly 200 tons of supplies to Liberia, where the charity is building community care centers in rural areas.

Graham said the United States also has the capacity to do more, particularly by creating an “air bridge” – regular flights that would serve as a pipeline for relief workers and supplies now that barely any commercial carriers fly to the most stricken countries. Graham said Samaritan’s Purse has twice had to charter two 747 jumbo jets to haul in humanitarian aid because most international airlines have ceased flights to Liberia.

“If the other countries step up, thank God,” said Graham, son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham. “But we can’t wait until others get their acts together.”

Anita Kumar and Tony Pugh contributed from Washington. McClatchy special correspondent John Zaracostas contributed from Geneva.