Shyama Venkateswar Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College and Director, Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

Posted on October 14, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday

The recent Ebola outbreak has given the global medical community pause as it figures out how such a deadly disease can spread so rapidly across a few countries in West Africa and now to a few cases reporting in Spain and the United States. Health officials this week have confirmed that 3,865 people have died due to the Ebola virus – not counting the case of Thomas Duncan, the Liberian who died in Dallas, Texas – with 8,033 additional cases of suspected or confirmed Ebola in West Africa. The response in Africa has been too slow and the health infrastructure severely inadequate. Struggling countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Guinea are ill-prepared to deal with the rapidity of the contagion and the need for critical public health resources to be deployed in a hurry to stop the spread.

The global medical response to the crisis has also been inadequate. Reports of essential medical supplies and protective gear sitting at the docks in Sierra Leone unable to get clearance because of the complex tangle of political feuds can confound the casual observer, but these are some of the stark realities that make managing a crisis of this magnitude so difficult.

Issuing travel bans to Ebola-stricken West African nations is not necessarily the answer as it limits the ability of badly-needed medical personnel to reach the affected areas. Containing the spread of the disease in Africa is the key to preventing its spread in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. The U.S., its NATO allies and other industrialized countries have a particular obligation to pay attention to global health pandemics because of the global human security element that transcends national borders.

The rapid spread of Ebola in West Africa makes it clear that well-planned and organized deployment of resources for medical care undertaken by an institution like the military is sorely needed. Africa, like elsewhere in the world, needs the distribution of experimental drugs, treatment centers, medical equipment, and manpower that can trace and halt the spread. The medical system needs to be ready; the recent deaths from Ebola in Texas and in Spain remind us that even wealthy nations can be caught unprepared for the inevitable spread of deadly diseases.

President Obama’s announcement to send 3,000 troops to Liberia is a step in the right direction to put US resources in the right place even though his action has come under criticism. The U.S. military as an institution can bring leadership and coordination, has the ability to quickly erect effective treatment centers and mobile labs, provide transportation and training by military medical personnel, and can deploy other resources easily available to the richest country in the world. West Africa’s health crisis is not a continent and an ocean away; it is right here in our midst. Using the U.S. military to halt the deadly spread of Ebola is in all our best interests.

The writing and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute or Hunter College.