Is the world asleep, too busy or afraid?
It is good that a national effort is being mounted to deal with the eventuality of the Ebola virus reaching our shores. While we hope it doesn't, our approach should be predicated not by 'if', but 'when'.
The foul-ups we saw in how the Thomas Duncan case was handled in Dallas suggest that even a First-World country with resources and medical infrastructure far superior to ours is not necessarily equipped to deal with a global Ebola spread that now appears distinctly possible.
While we must do all that is possible in terms of our own preparation, our ability to insulate or protect ourselves from the spread of the virus is severely limited. Infected persons who may arrive in Jamaica may be unaware that they are infected and may show no symptoms for several days, by which time they could have interacted with hundreds of people.
How many isolation centres will we be able to establish? Where will we find the health workers, already in short supply, and how quickly can they be appropriately trained to deal with the first and subsequent cases that could emerge? How will we ensure that they themselves are protected in light of the fact that two of the health workers who attended to Mr Duncan have now been found to be infected?
How many specialised ambulances will we be able to provide to move suspected cases to isolation? What treatment will we administer when they get there? What access do we have to laboratories equipped to speedily determine if a suspected case tests positive? What capacity do we have to do effective contact tracing and how will those contacts be monitored for the first sign of Ebola-like symptoms?
LACK OF RESOURCES
How will we dispose of contaminated material, and what statutory authority is in place to make mandatory the cremation of the remains of a person who may succumb to the virus? How will the Government find the resources required to fund all these efforts at a time of fiscal restraint and underperforming revenues?
The WHO has described the Ebola outbreak as the most severe health emergency in modern times and has estimated that the rate of infection could reach 10,000 per week in the next two months. At that stage, it will no longer be a West African crisis, but a full-blown pandemic. An outbreak of such proportions cannot be expected to be confined to its source borders. Banning flights from the severely affected countries is not the answer, bearing in mind that they are part of a continent with fragile borders and recalling, as well, that Mr Duncan arrived in the US via Brussels.
The Ebola crisis cannot be fought by pulling a curtain around these West African countries. It has to be fought and eradicated there - on the ground. These countries, with their already substandard health systems, simply cannot cope. The combined per-capita income of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea is less than half that of Jamaica.
With a few exceptions, the response of the global community has been pathetic. The Bill Gates Foundation has donated US$50 million to the Ebola fight. Some very wealthy countries have provided far less than that, many, nothing at all. Monetary contributions are urgently needed, but not sufficient. Skilled personnel, crisis managers, health trainers, equipment and materials and medical supplies need to be mobilised on an unprecedented, firefighting-type scale to bring the crisis under control and eventually eliminate it.
The US, the UK and Cuba must be commended for showing the way. That remarkable humanitarian organisation, Doctors Without Borders, has dispatched a contingent of 300 to the affected countries, but says it has exhausted its capacity.
The world, especially the developed countries, can and must do more ... much more and very quickly. This is not pure altruism. A smart coffee farmer knows that it is not enough to spray his own plants against berry borer. If he really wants to protect his trees, he must help his neighbour spray his!
Bruce Golding is a former prime minister. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.