“This highly insecure environment makes this response extremely challenging and can complicate public health activities,” a State Department official told a journalist.
Some experts agree. There are intensifying attacks by a militant group in the area, J. Peter Pham, an Africa expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said. Just a few days earlier, 15 people were slaughtered in an attack there.
“U.S. personnel are especially vulnerable,” Pham said, because in the event of an emergency, there are few U.S. troops or equipment in the area to help. And relations between the DRC government and the U.S. have not been warm lately.
ACAPS, an independent group that ranks humanitarian access in countries, calls the DRC “nearly inaccessible,” along with a handful of other countries including Libya, Afghanistan, and Somalia. That’s just one level below the worst global ranking of “inaccessible.”
“We are deeply concerned about continued loss of life due to armed group attacks in the region,” the State Department official continued, adding that the department is “currently engaged in an interagency deliberative process.”
Other countries and NGOs are sending people to the DRC. The U.S. isn’t.
The response to this DRC outbreak may be unusual in part because it’s the first time Ebola has spread in an active war zone.
In eastern DRC, armed opposition groups are carrying out deadly attacks on civilians, forcing more than a million people from their homes, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
But while the U.S. is staying back, officials from other countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as NGOs and humanitarian groups are sending personnel to help with the Ebola crisis. As of Oct.15, there were 450 responders on the ground. One of them — Scott Dowell of the Gates Foundation — was a veteran of CDC’s Ebola response unit, having helped in more than a dozen Ebola outbreaks.
“We know the response is struggling,” said Morrison, the health expert from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Something much more needs to happen here. … The security situation — security risks — are real, but they are manageable.”
Ron Klain, the former “Ebola czar” during the 2014-’16 outbreak in West Africa, is also concerned about the lack of an American presence.
“The fact that our country’s top experts from CDC have been relegated to the sideline by the White House shows an unwillingness to put together the right team and security partnerships to enable these talented men and women to do their jobs,” Klain said.
“There’s a fear of a Benghazi-type situation”
In February, the Trump administration announced deep cuts to the CDC, State Department, and USAID budgets. And because there was no sign that the $1 billion pot of money Congress gave USAID and the CDC in 2015 to fight Ebola in West Africa would get replenished, that prompted these agencies to plan a retreat from 39 of the 49 foreign countries they were working in.
Just one day after a separate Ebola outbreak was declared in the DRC early this year, the head of global health security on the NSC, Rear Adm. Tim Ziemer, left the Trump administration amid a reorganisation by National Security Adviser John Bolton. That means the top White House official who would lead a pandemic response is not there to coordinate.
The health security team Ziemer led was also dismantled. (According to the NSC press office, Ziemer’s team has been “assigned to two different offices that have a direct relationship to their mission sets.”)
When asked why the administration might not want to send people to DRC this time, especially since the U.S. government operates in many active war zones, Morrison offered a few ideas — some political, some ideological.
“There’s a fear of making a mistake and getting clobbered by Congress. There’s a fear of a Benghazi-type situation, that Americans might be targeted,” he said. “We’re looking at possible change of power in the House of Representatives in another 14 days.” (In 2012, an Islamic militant group attacked U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, leading to the deaths of four Americans.)
The broader Trump administration ideology — prioritizing American interests and letting others lead abroad — may also be a factor, Morrison said.
“I’m a believer the U.S. should be leading on the response; we have exceptional capacity to lead and we’ll bring others with us,” said Morrison. “We’re losing the game there and at risk of a much bigger outbreak. And if there’s a much bigger outbreak and we are hanging on the sidelines, we will be blamed.”