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Ebola: assessing Britain’s Sierra Leone response

DECEMBER 3, 2014 By Gabriel Benjamin

Britain Prime Minister,  David Cameron

Britain Prime Minister, David Cameron

Sierra Leone and Britain have been friends since pre-colonial days. Fifty three years ago, Sierra Leone gained independence from Britain. The super power has been heavily involved in Sierra Leone’s political and economic development the way it has not in many African countries. For example, Britain helped end the RUF war, even deploying troops at certain times. Remember ‘Operation Palliser’ of May 2000 when an “Operational Reconnaissance and Liaison Team” (ORLT) arrived in Freetown ostensibly to evacuate foreign citizens but ended up providing the kind of security assurance that had the rebels take flight in fright. Remember Operation Khukri and Barras, carried out by dare-devil soldiers to rescue British and Sierra Leonean hostages.

Since the war ended however, Britain has been more concerned with Sierra Leone’s socioeconomic and political development. In March 2011, for example, it committed to provide 0.7% of its Gross National Income to developing nations, including Sierra Leone.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell who used to be Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development, says that Britain’s support could change lives, scale-up programs to tackle maternal mortality and malaria. In addition, such support, notes Mr. Mitchell, could help a program that improves the quality and quantity of education, particularly for the girl child, transform communities and assist countries in their Millennium Development Goals efforts.

Surely, because Britain’s investments in Sierra Leone must not go down the drain, the country cannot afford not to help win another war – the war against the dreaded Ebola virus that has claimed over 1500 lives – and counting – in Sierra Leone alone. Britain is complementing government’s effort, supporting charities on the ground, and has even flown in troops and other health workers.

Despite all previous efforts, questions are being raised whether Britain has done enough to stem the Ebola tide in Sierra Leone. Comparisons have been drawn between British efforts in Sierra Leone and the U.S. interventions in Liberia and what the French are doing in Guinea. Given the somewhat stabilizing Ebola situations in both Liberia and Guinea, these comparisons draw further scrutiny.

No doubt, Ebola infection rate is soaring in the country. As at 1st December, the country as recorded cumulative Ebola confirmed cases of 5,978 according to the Ministry of Health and Sanitation. The treatment centers are not running at full capacity. The Ebola death toll is increasing significantly. British presence has apparently not saved the lives of frontline workers, including medical doctors and nurses who contracted the virus why caring for other Ebola patients.

However, the British government has so far played a leading role in the Ebola fight, pledging £205 million (about $330 million) – the second largest donation by a single nation. On the other hand, the U.S. is requesting about $1.6 billion from Congress to fight Ebola. Given the U.S.’s historical ties to Liberia, there is little doubt the bulk of that money will be used in Liberia. Of course Britain and the U.S. are two different countries, with vastly different amounts of resources.

The speed of intervention may be having a direct impact on current outcomes. While the British troops are currently busy building a 700-bed Ebola treatment wards in at least five treatment centers in Sierra Leone, the U.S. marines have completed the construction of some treatment centers in Liberia, which are now operational. Yet, British media such as the BBC and Channel 4 are reporting that the Kerry Town Ebola treatment centre (constructed by Britain) that was opened in early November is still not operating at full capacity.

Britain has so far deployed about 300 military personnel in Sierra Leone. That includes the RFA Argus deployed in October, and consists of 250 personnel that support three Merlin helicopters, aircrew and engineers. By comparison, the U.S. plans to deploy up to 3,000 marines to Liberia, with the first batch already on the ground.

This is not to suggest that British deployments are insufficient or ineffective; indeed, they have provided a calming effect and rekindled hope among Sierra Leoneans that Ebola can be defeated. Some may even argue, and correctly, that America’s decision to utilize 3,000 troops was made in the heat of the recently concluded mid-term elections in that country, which means; there may have been a political motive. Many military analysts and humanitarian experts in the U.S. are now saying that the 3,000 figure is on the high side, because not all of those troops will be needed after all.

Commenting on the arrival of the British medics in Sierra Leone, Britain’s International Development Secretary Justine Greening said: “Our fight against Ebola in West Africa is one of Britain’s biggest responses to a disease outbreak. Almost a thousand military personnel, scientists, healthcare and aid workers are already on the ground in Sierra Leone working to contain, control and defeat this terrible disease”.

Because of the spike in the number of new Ebola cases, people are wondering how soon British efforts will begin to bear fruits. But it is also fair to imagine what might have been without those efforts. And Britain’s determination to be relentless was made clear by Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Philip Hammond, who urged action for a change in policy and direction to stop a “global catastrophe”.

There have been many stories surrounding President Ernest Bai Koroma’s botched travel to London for an international aid conferencein early October. Despite that huddle, Britain made a passionate appeal for ‘international help’ to deal with the Ebola outbreak. It called on countries to increase financial aid as well as other logistical support.

But there are ways Britain can reinforce its standing as Sierra Leone’s best friend in need. For example,cancellations of direct flights from Britain to Sierra Leone over Ebola fears shocked Sierra Leoneans, charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). There can be ways to ensure a resumption of some air travels without jeopardizing the health of British nationals. It’s all clear now how Ebola is transmitted: if Ebola patients showing symptoms are not on a plane, and their bodily fluids are not in direct contact with others, there can be no transmission.

Médecins sans Frontières, one of the frontline aid charities in the Ebola fight, has criticized the decision to suspend flight operations. Its Spokeswoman said, “It is extremely difficult to get much-needed staff into the region and at a time that we need more people on the ground than ever, this decision was taken. It is very unhelpful.” Ben Mortimer, a Spokesman for Gambia Bird’s official agent in the UK, McPhillips Travel, chided the decision, “We think it is an overreaction … This decision punishes Sierra Leone and West Africa in general.” Only one European airline, Brussels Airlines, has maintained operations, allowing travel for doctors, nurses and other workers. Yet, we have not heard of any untoward situation in Brussels Airlines operations.

Having helped defeat the RUF, Sierra Leoneans are waiting to see what new strategies Britain will apply to crush Ebola. Prime Minister David Cameron says there is a need for collective effort to defeat Ebola. “It is only with combined efforts that we stand a chance of defeating this disease.” Most Sierra Leoneans agree with Mr. Cameron, and still consider Britain as a dependable ally in these trying times.