Money (not) well spent? Concerns raised over Canada's response to Ebola

Health volunteers carrying Ebola prevention kits walk through West Point in Monrovia, Liberia. Is Canada walking the walk in the Ebola response? Photo by: Morgana Wingard / UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

Canada stepped up its contribution to the global response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, after the government announced Oct. 17 it would contribute an additional 30 million Canadian dollars ($26.6 million) to various U.N. agencies, Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. This came on top of the CA$35 million already pledged in previous weeks.

“This funding will be committed towards the international effort on five fronts, which include stopping the outbreak, treatment for those infected, ensuring essential vaccines and services, preserving stability and preventing outbreaks in surrounding countries,” Canadian health minister Rona Ambrose said in a statement.

Canada’s Public Health Agency also revealed Oct. 18 it would start shipping 800 doses of the experimental vaccine developed by the National Microbiology Laboratory to the World Health Organization on Oct. 20. Canada had previously committed to sending CA$2.5 million worth of protective equipment to affected countries and had deployed two mobile laboratories in Sierra Leone as of mid-October.

But while Ambrose praised Canada’s “leadership role” against Ebola in West Africa, questions remained on how effective the country’s contribution had actually been on the ground.

Of the CA$35 million initially pledged, only CA$4.3 million were showing up as committed funding on the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairsfinancial tracking website as of mid-October, meaning no legal agreements have yet been drafted concerning the remaining funds. As of Oct. 19, Canada’s actual financial contribution for the international response to combat the disease came in 17th place, behind Venezuela, Switzerland and Kuwait among others. The United States, with $206.4 million in committed funding, remained by far the largest donor.

As for the protective gear, only two shipments had been sent to the WHO as of October, with others to follow “in the coming months,” according to Judith Bosse, assistant deputy minister of public health — and it was unclear whether the first shipments had in fact been dispatched to affected areas.

What’s more, the experimental vaccine wouldn’t be used for months, as results from the clinical trials currently being conducted in the U.S. were only expected in December.

Canada’s lack of commitment to short-term results — as well as its focus on sending funds and equipment — contradicted statements made from leading humanitarian organizations.

“Cases are doubling every 25 days, and our capacity to respond is diminishing,” Stéphane Michaud, deputy director for emergency operations overseas at the Canadian Red Cross, told Devex. “We must keep on supporting the response by sending personnel. To contribute with money and equipment is not enough.”

In her Sept. 2 address to the United Nations, MSF International President Joanne Liu, a Canadian pediatrician, made a direct appeal to the international community to send personnel on the ground.

“To curb the epidemic, it is imperative that states immediately deploy civilian and military assets with expertise in biohazard containment,” she said. “I call upon you to dispatch your disaster response teams, backed by the full weight of your logistical capabilities. This should be done in close collaboration with the affected countries.”

Liu was later quoted by the Canadian media as asking for the government to send its Disaster Assistance Response Team — a branch of the Canadian army usually deployed to disaster-affected areas — to West Africa. But contacted by Devex last week, a spokesperson for MSF Canada could not provide provide any further comments on Liu’s appeal or on Canada’s role in the Ebola response. The spokesperson said the organization was in the process of redefining its position, and adopted a “wait-and-see” approach until further notice.

Some critics have pointed out that Cuba has already committed to sending more medical personnel than Canada has. Others outlined Canada’s specific responsibility in leaving Sierra Leone with a health system that is ill-equipped to deal with the current epidemic, and failing to match post-conflict reconstruction efforts with long-term development.

Ian Smillie, an Ottawa-based development consultant and Sierra Leone expert, wrote in a recent blog post that Canada, having chaired the country’s U.N. Peace-building Commission since 2009, should have offered more assistance.

Out of the CA$19.4 million Ottawa had, as of mid-October, contributed to the Global Peace and Security Fund for peace-building projects in Sierra Leone since assuming chairmanship of the Commission, only CA$900,000 were directed through the Sierra Leone Multidonor Trust Fund, whose projects included strengthening national health systems.

In fact, Sierra Leone never even made it to Canada’s list of priority countries for official development assistance, which are supposed to be chosen “based on their real needs, their capacity to benefit from aid, and their alignment with Canadian foreign policy priorities,” according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.

“I don’t know why [Canada] took responsibility for Sierra Leone,” Smillie later told Devex. “Clearly, they didn’t have any intention of spending any development money there.”

Now — and especially after the U.N. Security Council declared in September that Ebola is a threat to international peace and security — the money that could have been spent on development is all going to be spent on emergency assistance to combat the virus.

“It's not as though much of this is going to have any long-lasting effects apart from putting out the disease,” Smillie concluded.

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About the author

  • Flavie portrait

    Flavie Halais

    Flavie Halais is a contributor based in Montreal who covers cities and international social issues. In 2013-2014, Flavie was an Aga Khan Foundation Canada International Fellow, reporting for Nation Media Group in Nairobi, Kenya. She’s also reported from Rwanda, Brazil and Colombia.

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