SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) When the Ebola virus was first identified in March as the cause of a series of mysterious deaths in the remote forests of Guinea, Europe moved quickly to battle a disease that has now infected more than 7,000 Africans and already killed around half of those. It mobilized more money and health workers than the United States, China or anyone else for West Africa.
But, proud of its long record as the world’s biggest donor of humanitarian aid, Europe has since suffered a blow to its self-image of can-do generosity. Its own efforts to contain the lethal virus have been overshadowed by President Obama’s announcement last month that he was sending 3,000 troops to West Africa to build hospitals and otherwise help in the fight against Ebola.
While a few left-wingers sneered at the American deployment as yet another example of Washington’s taste for military intervention — and praised Cuba for sending more than 100 doctors to West Africa — many European officials and politicians welcomed the move and wondered why what had been a European-led international effort to contain the virus had clearly not worked.
Now, with Europe grappling with the first case of Ebola transmitted on its soil after news on Monday that a nurse in Madrid had been infected, European leaders are scrambling to coordinate and ramp up their response to the lethal disease. As public anxieties grow, politicians on the far right are seizing on the Ebola crisis to demand sharp curbs in immigration, while those on the left rail against Europe’s colonial past and its failure to do more to help Africa contain the virus.
Pressure to contain the epidemic has prompted European Union officials in Brussels to start meeting daily with aid groups and representatives from member states to discuss how to best respond to the crisis. Europe’s emergency response unit, housed in a drab Brussels office block, used to focus on monitoring natural disasters and wars, but now tracks Ebola around the clock.
“Speed is of the essence, and there is a feeling that all of us have been behind the curve,” Claus Sorensen, director general of Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, a department of the European Union’s Brussels administration, said in an interview.
For many months, the struggle against Ebola was a largely African and European effort. Doctors Without Borders, which was founded in France, set up a series of treatment centers. Its doctors and nurses stayed put while those of some other groups like Samaritan’s Purse of the United States, pulled out after staff members became infected.
Doctors Without Borders, financed by the European Union and donors, now has nearly 300 international workers and 2,900 local employees in West Africa, according to Christof Godderis, a spokesman for the group’s Belgian branch, which has been at the forefront of the anti-Ebola campaign.
Yet, the sight of American troops building clinics and unloading supplies has been a jolt to Europe’s longstanding belief that humanitarian assistance is a more effective tool for dealing with the problems of the world than military might. Together with its 28 member states, the European Union boasts of providing more than half of the global total of humanitarian assistance.
Linda McAvan, head of the European Parliament’s development committee, said Europe’s self-criticism is off-base. “The U.S. is one country,” she said. “If it wants to send its military, it can do that straight away. But the European Union does not have a military,” she said in an interview.
Instead, the bloc has 28 separate militaries, each one controlled by its national government.
Prodded by Mr. Obama’s Sept 16 announcement, President François Hollande of France announced two days later that he, too, was sending troops to West Africa. The French soldiers will set up a hospital in the forest region of southern Guinea where the current Ebola outbreak began last December. Britain has ordered its military to do the same in Sierra Leone. European officials note that, unlike the American military, Britain and France will provide medical personnel to staff what they build.
Europe does not have a direct equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the organization that has dispatched scores of disease-control experts to West Africa. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, headquartered in Sweden, coordinates the work of health experts in different countries but does not have its own emergency-response teams.
In a debate in the European Parliament a day after Mr. Obama’s announcement, politicians from across the political spectrum took the floor to complain that Europe needed to get more directly involved in battling Ebola in West Africa.
“Look at the way we have managed, or rather mismanaged, this epidemic,” Michèle Rivasi, a center-left French legislator, told the European Assembly. Abandoning customary French suspicion of the American military, she said that Washington was “not sending soldiers but people who can build hospitals, and that is a good thing.” Europe, she added, needed to step up its response.
The Parliament passed a resolution calling for a more robust European response to the outbreak and bemoaning “the underestimation of the crisis by the international community.”
In announcing the United States’ deployment, Mr. Obama was pointed in his message that America was “prepared to take the leadership on this” but could not fight the epidemic on its own. The White House in effect challenged other nations to roll out a similar level of response in Guinea and Sierra Leone, the two other nations hard hit by the disease, which were colonies of France and Britain, respectively.