Except perhaps for the conscript press, which has its own permanent concerns, the world media seem focused on Ebola, which has stricken West Africa. In quick succession, the virus has drowned out stories about climate change, about the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, about the so-called “seismic change” in Church teaching on sexuality and marriage. It seems the only thing they want to talk about.
The current issue of The Economist narrates how the pandemic started in 1976, and quotes UN fears of its deadly spread in the days ahead. According to the story, the virus was first discovered by scientists in Antwerp from a thermos out of Yambuku, in what was then Zaire. The thermos contained two samples from a nun who was fatally ill. One of the vials had smashed and was lost. But they were able to scoop the other out of a pool of icy water, blood and broken glass, and there they saw they were handling an unnamed deadly virus. They did not want to call it Yambuku, so they named it after a local river, the Ebola, instead.
Since then Ebola has figured in at least 20 epidemics. These affected only small villages and subsided after claiming fewer than 300 lives. Today, however, Ebola has hit three West African countries with a combined population of 20 million—Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—where it has infected more than 400 medical professionals and killed at least 4,500 patients. It took a Liberian man infected with Ebola to travel to Dallas and die there for the world to realize it could become a global menace.
According to The Economist, the World Health Organization fears up to 10,000 new victims by December, perhaps 70 percent of whom will die. While medical science searches for a cure, Ebola kills not only patients for whom no cure has been found but also health workers who, having been exposed to patients, end up exuding up to ten liters of virus-laden fluids a day. The number of infections appears to be doubling every two to four weeks, says the story. This requires a concerted and speedy global response, but this has been rather poorly organized and slow.
In the US, The New York Times has reported that President Barack Obama during a meeting with key advisers “seethed” in frustration and anger with how the government has handled key elements of the response. Medical officials were said to have been providing information that later turned out to be inaccurate; not enough guidance was being given to local health teams; and it was never clear which Ebola patients belonged in which threat categories. There was also not enough hands-on involvement of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Obama has since named an administration “point man” to coordinate the US response to the pandemic. For this job he chose Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, and a top aide to Vice President Al Gore before that, but without any medical or public health expertise. He will need all the luck in the world.
Among the international responders, Cuba, despite its poverty, its tiny size, its distance of 4,500 miles from the affected countries, and its having been cut off from the Western world by the US economic embargo for 54 years, has so far shown the best response. Cuba has committed to deploy hundreds of medical doctors and nurses to the front lines—-a brave and heroic act that has won the highest praise from a lead editorial in The New York Times.
As the world’s most influential paper sees it, Cuba “stands to play the most robust role among the nations seeking to contain the virus…While the United States and several other wealthy countries have been happy to pledge funds, only Cuba and a few nongovernmental organizations are offering what is most needed: medical professionals in the field…
“It is a shame that Washington, the chief donor in the fight against Ebola, is diplomatically estranged from Havana, the boldest contributor. In this case, the schism has life-or-death consequences, because American and Cuban officials are not equipped to coordinate global efforts at a high level. This should serve as an urgent reminder to the Obama administration that the benefits of moving swiftly to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba far outweigh the drawbacks.
“The Cuban health workers will be among the most exposed foreigners, and some could very well contract the virus. The World Health Organization is directing the team of Cuban doctors, but it remains unclear how it would treat and evacuate Cubans who become sick. Transporting quarantined patients requires sophisticated teams and specially configured aircraft. Most insurance companies that provide medical evacuation services have said they will not be flying Ebola patients.
“Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday praised ‘the courage of any health worker who is undertaking this challenge,’ and made a brief acknowledgment of Cuba’s response. As a matter of good sense and compassion, the American military, which now has about 550 troops in West Africa, should commit to giving any sick Cuban access to the treatment center the Pentagon built in Monrovia and to assisting with evacuation.
“The work of these Cuban medics benefits the entire global effort and should be recognized for that. But Obama administration officials have callously declined to say what, if any, support they would give them.
“The Cuban health sector is aware of the risks of taking on dangerous missions. Cuban doctors assumed the lead role in treating cholera patients in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake in 2010. Some returned home sick, and then the island had its first outbreak of cholera in a century. An outbreak of Ebola on the island could pose a far more dangerous risk and increase the odds of a rapid spread in the Western hemisphere.
“Cuba has a long tradition of dispatching doctors and nurses to disaster areas abroad. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Cuban government created a quick-reaction medical corps and offered to send doctors to New Orleans. The United States, unsurprisingly, didn’t take Havana up on that offer. Yet officials in Washington seemed thrilled to learn in recent weeks that Cuba had activated the medical teams for mission in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
“With technical support from the World Health Organization, the Cuban government trained 460 doctors and nurses on the stringent precautions that must be taken to treat people with highly contagious virus. The first group of 165 professionals arrived in Sierra Leone in recent days. Jose Luis Di Fabio, the WHO representative in Havana, said Cuban medics were uniquely suited for the mission because many had already worked in Africa. ‘Cuba has very competent medical professionals,’ said Mr. Di Fabio, who is Uruguayan. Mr. Di Fabio said Cuba’s efforts to aid in health emergencies abroad are stymied by the embargo the United States imposes on the island, which struggles to acquire modern equipment and keep medical shelves adequately stocked.
“In a column published over the weekend in Cuba’s state-run newspaper, Granma, Fidel Castro argued that the US and Cuba must put aside their differences, if only temporarily, to combat a deadly scourge. He’s absolutely right,” the NYTimes editorial concluded.
The US first imposed its commercial, economic and financial embargo against Cuba on Oct. 19, 1960, two years after the Cuban revolution deposed the Fulgencio Batista regime. The US banned all exports to Cuba except for food and medicine. On Feb. 7, 1962, it extended the embargo to include all imports. Through the various US presidents, the embargo has been characterized by systematic enlargement.
Together with Iran, Sudan and Syria, Cuba has also been listed by the US State Department as one of the state sponsors of terrorism. Since 1992 however the UN General Assembly has passed a resolution every year condemning the impact of the embargo and declaring it a violation of the UN Charter and international law. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, among others, have consistently criticized the embargo.
In sharp contrast to Cuba’s brave and unselfish action, the Philippine government has declined the WHO invitation to send medical professionals to the Ebola-stricken nations. No official reason was given for the refusal. And no public consultations were known to have been held by the Aquino government with the medical profession to find out if there were any professionals willing to volunteer. At the same time Department of Health officials have arrogantly and ignorantly proclaimed they were “ready” for Ebola.
It is a real shame. It is an act that truly dishonors our people, and the noble men and women in our medical profession. Have we forgotten how we opened our doors to welcome the victims of Nazi persecution, for which the Jewish people continue to this day to thank and honor even our young children?
But perhaps Aquino could still make up for his ignoble behavior. As Obama’s known political ally, he can, if he so wishes, adopt as his own the call of the NY Times and Fidel Castro himself for a temporary, if not permanent, lifting of the 54-year-old US embargo, if only to allow Cuba’s medical volunteers to avail of whatever US help they might need in the Ebola-stricken nations.
If Aquino cannot provide direct aid to these suffering kindred nations, he can at the very least help Cuba in its selfless effort to help them. Does he not have the largeness of heart to say yes to this? Or is the temptation so strong to say no to the love of God and neighbor?