More medical staff, focused communication strategies and differentiated approaches in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are the priorities of the European Union’s action plan to respond to Ebola, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs Christos Stylianides announced in mid-November after a five-day visit to West Africa, his first official trip since he was appointed in late October.
Directly after returning from the Ebola-affected countries with European Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, Stylianides — who also serves as the EU’s Ebola coordinator — briefed the European Parliament Nov. 17 and met the foreign ministers of the 28 EU member states, who pledged to step up their commitments to fight the epidemic.
Stylianides told the influential Development Committee (known as DEVE) that his trip helped to identify the main gaps in the EU’s response to the crisis. He promised to produce a detailed action plan with concrete measures, and suggested holding a high-level meeting on Ebola with representatives from West African governments.
The commissioner admitted that he was shaken by what he saw at in Conakry, Guinea.
“At Donka Hospital ... we met Ibrahim, an Ebola survivor who was ostracized by his village,” Stylianides said. “He cannot go back, so he worked at the hospital as a volunteer. He said he only wished someone could hug him.”
The EU’s humanitarian aid chief and Ebola czar found that the outbreak has followed a different course in each of the three countries he visited, and that warrants a different approach for each of them.
The response structures in place are “sound” in Sierra Leone and “very strong” in Liberia, said Stylianides, thanks to British and U.S. support, respectively. In Liberia the number of cases is decreasing, but the virus may become more mobile. In Sierra Leone, however, despite the good work, the number of contagions is on the rise, in some regions even dramatically.
The situation is Guinea is more complex, with an overall lower number of cases but a slow increase over large areas. Coordination leaves much to be desired, so the commissioner welcomed the offer by French Minister of State for Development and Francophonie Annick Girardin — whom he met in the country — to step up France’s role in combating Ebola there.
Stylianides is especially worried about further contaminations through the border areas between the three Ebola-affected countries.
More staff, better communication
Stylianides will single out the needs for West Africa in the coming days, but made it clear that more medical staff is needed: especially doctors in Guinea, and nurses, hygienists, medical teams and mobile labs in all three countries. EU health ministers have been asked to launch enrollment campaigns for volunteers and to set up one-week training before departure and support structures after their return.
“Aid workers must not be stigmatized because they have helped to combat Ebola,” the commissioner said.
Information, he added, is a crucial second front in the fight against Ebola.
“We have to find ways to communicate with people to convince them to follow hygiene rules,” Stylianides explained, adding that particularly in Guinea resistance to treating Ebola is still strong. “Often people see the disease as something diabolical or a conspiracy.”
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A broad information strategy would require communications experts — and even anthropologists — to work with authorities and nongovernmental organizations to reach out to community and tribe leaders in their own languages.
Money pledges must actually be spent on the ground
As of mid-November, Brussels had committed up to 1.2 billion euros ($1.51 billion), including 373 million euros from the Commission alongside contributions from member states.
“But we must see to it that money that is committed is also spent on the ground”, Stylianides stressed before praising several members for providing manpower and material as well as transport and logistical support.
During the debate with DEVE, Charles Goerens, a liberal member of the European Parliament from Luxembourg, lamented the late reaction of the international community to the Ebola crisis.
“We were dumber and slower than the virus, but now we’re starting to move,” Goerens said, suggesting to the commissioner that Parliament would be “happy to follow his line.”
After the meeting, Stylianides demonstrated the “Ebola handshake” to MEPs: touching each other with the elbows and knuckles, a way to greet each other and keep human contact even in the most dire circumstances.
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