Aid agencies have cautiously welcomed the United States’ announcement that it would deliver aid to health workers in West African countries hit by an Ebola outbreak that has killed at least 2,296 people.
With the deadly virus still raging in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, some see the intervention of the world’s most powerful military as a last resort — and best hope.
But Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) — while applauding the U.S. move — said they don’t want the security detail for health care workers that President Obama pledged on Sunday.
And some experts have expressed concerns that the involvement of American forces adds an unpredictable element to the public health emergency.
“In this particular case, the Ebola emergency is so severe and the logistical challenges are so serious and seem so insurmountable that you have humanitarian actors that are normally very resistant to any kind of military aid asking for the military to get involved,” said Laura Seay, a Colby College assistant professor of government specializing in African issues.
“This is one of those things where you have to be careful what you wish for,” Seay said, adding that it is important that the U.S. military abide by the local governments' protocols.
The White House’s Sunday announcement marked a major escalation of U.S. involvement in the crisis.
The United Nations’ World Health Organization has said it underestimated the severity of the outbreak — as did other aid groups — but that it had redoubled efforts, cooperation with local governments and appeals for money to make up for lost time.
At least 4,000 people have already been infected, with the mortality rate of the outbreak around 50 percent.
MSF, whose health care workers have fought on the front lines against Ebola, welcomed the promise of supplies and equipment from the U.S. military, but sounded a note of caution in a statement issued on Monday.
“MSF welcomes President Obama's commitment to deploy medical assets to help establish isolation units in the Ebola-affected region, and reiterates the need for this support to be of medical nature only,” the statement read.
“Aid workers do not need additional security support in the affected region,” it added.
WHO also said it does not believe the U.S. military needs to act as a security force, and it does not recommend that it do so.
Meredith Stakem, West Africa aid coordinator for nonprofit organization Catholic Relief Services (CRS), echoed MSF’s view.
Speaking from Dakar, Senegal — the latest country to see a case of the virus — Stakem said that the unprecedented scale of the latest Ebola outbreak requires major supply and logistical services, but that security for doctors wasn’t necessary. She said the mere presence of men with weapons could undermine the entire mission.
“What we don’t want to see is the U.S. military going in with guns and enforcing quarantines. It will prevent their ability to do anything else,” Stakem said, adding that U.S. forces should respect the sovereignty and cultures of the local governments in delivering aid.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s Africa operations center, Africom, did not respond to a request for comment.
Some health workers in the affected region have been attacked by local residents who harbor a deep mistrust of doctors they suspect of spreading the virus themselves. Others believe the outbreak to be a hoax concocted by their governments to wring aid money from donor countries.
Stakem, however, said this aspect of the crisis was fading after successful efforts to prove to residents that doctors are there to help — and that the threat of the virus is real.
“There’s been a big push to make sure people understand what Ebola is,” she said.
More than violence, Ebola itself has so far posed the greatest threat to health care workers, with the latest outbreak having killed at least 120 of them.
To Stakem, the best thing that the U.S. can do is provide necessary supplies — such as field hospitals, which the military knows how to set up — and deliver real results to people who are suffering.
But Obama, in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, had said confidently that the U.S. would provide necessary security for health workers.
“We’re going to have to get U.S. military assets just to set up, for example, isolation units and equipment there … to provide security for public health workers surging from around the world,” the president said on the talk show, according to the Washington Post.