Why Irish troops should be deployed to deal with Ebola

Opinion: ‘Government strategy seems to be – pull the ladder up behind us, leave West Africans to their fate and hope that Ebola never comes to Ireland’

 

It is not possible to declare neutrality in the war against Ebola. Even if you set aside the normal impulses of empathy for the suffering of people in a far-off land, the realm of enlightened self-interest should inform a more decisive response from our Government.

Instead, a defensive stance has been adopted. Rather than taking even the slightest risk with public service staff, the Government strategy seems to be – pull the ladder up behind us, leave west Africans to their fate and then hope that Ebola never comes to Ireland.

The argument that our health services are already stretched is a familiar one. It maintains we have enough of our own problems to deal with, and until we reach some nirvana of optimum health services we should turn our back on our brothers and sisters in other countries.

Irish Aid is to be commended for all it has done, and the Irish diplomats in Sierra Leone and Liberia have also done trojan work.

There has been additional funding and flexibility around existing funding. There has also been strong advocacy, most particularly the visit of Minister of State Seán Sherlock to west Africa.

But a further character of this early iteration of Irish Government policy is the hope that the entire response from Ireland can be contained within Irish Aid. The recent UN Security Council Resolution designated Ebola “a threat to world peace” and called on member-states to provide health experts, field hospitals and medical supplies. The resolution had an unprecedented 130 co-sponsors. The enthusiasm didn’t get any further than the door to the Council chamber.

Furthermore, the World Health Organisation has called on member-states to do all in their power to combat Ebola and repeats stark warnings about the trajectory of this illness.

The reality is now firmly accepted that if we don’t fight Ebola in west Africa now, we will end up fighting it here for many years. This is because there is a small window during which it is still possible that Ebola could be eradicated in the region. The WHO calculates that if 70 per cent of Ebola patients are in treatment units by December, the numbers of new patients will start to fall.

The alternative is that Ebola becomes endemic in west Africa, characterised by regular outbreaks and requiring a permanent international vigilance.

In this context, it is difficult to understand the logic behind the decision not to deploy our troops to assist in the response to Ebola. We have approximately 400 troops stationed overseas in some very challenging environments, including the Golan Heights.

Goal is not asking that troops perform a frontline function – a clear distinction has to be made in the public mind between clinical staff and non-clinical staff. The latter run very little risk. They are the logisticians working on the supply chain for the treatment units and for the frontline health workers, providing for their every need at work and at rest; they are the water engineers providing for sanitation facilities during the construction of new units; and they are the financial experts ensuring that large government grants are properly applied and monitored.

The bravery of health workers is almost beyond comprehension. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) deserves enormous credit for the expertise it has brought to this outbreak. On April 1st, MSF said that this outbreak was unprecedented. By the end of May, the World Health Assembly (WHA) met in Geneva to talk about international concerns, but Ebola was not discussed. This underlines how complete the failure of the international system has been, and the huge degree of underfunding for global health systems. The World Bank recently called for a global health fund of $20 billion. If governments maintain a defensive stance outbreaks like that in west Africa will become commonplace.

It is not unreasonable to conclude that the reason for this outbreak is not just the nature of the virus but also poverty.

It is highly unlikely Ebola would spread with any virulence in countries with developed health systems.

It makes the hesitant approach of the Irish Government almost incomprehensible.

I can only hope there may be facts available to public health officials or Defence Forces personnel to which we are not privy which might later provide an explanation. Barry Andrews is chief executive officer of Goal

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