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China’s Ebola Aid Response

Nov 13 , 2014
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

China has now joined the United States and Britain in a long overdue effort to help reduce Ebola fatalities in West Africa. Last week China dispatched 1000 health workers and physicians to Liberia. China has also pledged substantial sums to UN-sponsored efforts to provide food and clothing to Ebola sufferers. Together with Western efforts and funds, China may help end today’s scourge of Ebola.

The 1000 public health experts are going to Liberia, the hardest hit of the three West African countries that have borne the brunt of the Ebola epidemic. Already, nearly 5000 Africans have died in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone and up to another 5000 fatalities are anticipated by the World Health Organization before the epidemic is fully contained. A further 13,500 persons have been infected by Ebola in those three countries, along with much smaller numbers in another five nations across Africa and the world.

The new Chinese arrivals are from an elite unit of the People’s Liberation Army that looks after medical needs. Physicians, nurses, decontamination experts, and logistical specialists are among those who will be helping an existing Chinese cadre already in Liberia, along with smaller Chinese anti-Ebola detachments in Guinea and Sierra Leone. These newcomers have experience in combating the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus epidemic that was contained in 2002.

China’s soldiers will construct and manage a 100-bed treatment center in Monrovia, Liberia’s Ebola-ridden capital, costing $81 million. Along with a smaller, specialized, facility outside Monrovia that the U. S. is erecting for infected medical personnel from Liberia and other countries, plus the seventeen treatment centers that the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers is now constructing throughout Monrovia and Liberia, this will be one of the largest Ebola clinics in West Africa and the only one run completely by a foreign military organization.

The new Chinese contingent joins 700 Chinese health workers already working in the three most infected West African countries. China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention also runs a mobile testing laboratory in Freetown, the afflicted capital of Sierra Leone. It performs up to 60 blood tests for Ebola each day, as often on deceased individuals (to learn how many deaths are truly from Ebola) as on living patients.

About 30 persons work in the testing laboratory. Another 30 physicians and nurses from a Beijing Military Hospital operate a holding center near Freetown to help potential Ebola spreaders observe quarantine.  (Ebola is transmitted by intimate contact with effluent or other patient discharges. A twenty-one-day quarantine usually suffices to remove the threat of contact between symptomatic persons and passersby).)

China’s very recent pledge of  $450,000 by the China Development Bank to the UN’s Ebola Response Multi-Partner Trust Fund is  intended to help the Fund prevent and control the Ebola epidemic –with monies distributed equally across the three target countries of Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The Bank’s China-Africa Development Fund was established originally to support Chinese business efforts across Africa. 

Additionally, to battle Ebola, China is supplying 60 ambulances, 100 motorcycles, pickup trucks, and portable incinerators. Ambulances and pick-up trucks are in unusually short supply locally because of the epidemic. When someone shows signs of Ebola in the slums of Monrovia, an ambulance is called — and may sometime or someday arrive to transport ill Liberians to a clinic or hospital. But the ambulances often become hearses, taking the dying to burial places and now, if President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia can persuade her citizens, to crematoriums. The portable incinerators are needed to burn compromised clothing and furnishings.

China, albeit belatedly, has joined other leading world powers in supplying needed personnel, cash, and equipment to assist West Africans in their mortal combat against Ebola.

What the Chinese and Americans are doing should have been done months ago, near the onset of the epidemic, but now Ebola can be contained and then stopped from spreading if Beijing and Washington successfully reinforce WHO and West African efforts to treat Ebola patients in purpose-built facilities staffed by well-trained outsiders  (including 165 Cuban doctors).

Until now shabby and inadequate local clinics and hospitals have been unable to cope with the unexpected tsunami of Ebola cases. Nor have each of the three most affected West African countries had sufficient medical personnel. Chinese, American, British, and Cuban doctors and nurses, operating in well-managed new facilities, will supplement the capable but over-stretched efforts of a few international non-governmental organizations like Medecins sans Frontieres, plus local governmental endeavors.  In this manner China can help  Africa beat back Ebola.

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