With $690 million in aid, Ebola workers go unpaid
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — Safely removing the highly contagious corpses of Ebola victims is essential to containing the outbreak of a virus whose official death toll rose to 3,879 people as of Wednesday.
And yet, despite pledges of nearly $700 million in aid to West Africa to combat the disease, the people tasked with collecting the dead say they aren’t getting paid nor protected enough for this extremely hazardous duty.
Burial teams resumed picking up dead bodies from homes and streets in Sierra Leone on Wednesday, ending a one-day strike after they were promised they’d get their weekly hazard pay — about $115 each — by day’s end. But Liberian health workers threatened a strike of their own this weekend if their hazard pay isn’t increased to nearly twice that much.
Their frustration reflects how difficult it has been to overcome a profound lack of resources on the front lines of this outbreak.
Health workers are especially vulnerable to Ebola, which is spread by contact with the bodily fluids of infected people and corpses, and a wave of recent aid pledges have yet to make their daily operations much easier.
The World Health Organization said most of Ebola’s toll of confirmed, probable and suspected deaths have been in Liberia, with 2,210, and Sierra Leone, with 879.
Sierra Leone’s deputy health minister Madina Rahman announced that the strike had been “resolved” Wednesday morning. She said the ministry is investigating the one-week delay in hazard payments. The ministry had deposited the money in a bank account, but local authorities failed to promptly disburse it to the burial teams, she said.
One team leader working outside a government hospital told The Associated Press that they resumed recovering bodies Wednesday after being promised their hazard pay by day’s end. The team leader wouldn’t say anything more as he loaded dead bodies into an ambulance to be buried outside Freetown.
About 600 workers in groups of 12 make up the burial teams, health ministry spokesman Sidie Yahya Tunis said. He called the strike “very embarrassing.” The government was already criticized this week over delays that kept a shipping container filled with medical gear and mattresses held up at the port for more than a month.
In Liberia, health workers are demanding personal protective equipment as well as $700 a month in hazard pay, said George Williams, secretary-general of the National Health Workers Association. “We give the government up to the weekend to address all these or else we will stop work,” Williams said.
Nurses, laboratory technicians and physician’s assistants are receiving $435 in hazard pay in addition to their regular monthly salaries, while doctors are getting an additional $825 per month, said assistant health minister Tolbert Nyenswah.
Thirty-five countries have pledged more than $690 million, Donald Lu, deputy coordinator for the U.S. State Department’s Ebola response, said Wednesday.
But getting money to where it’s needed most is a major challenge, said Steven Radelet, a Georgetown University foreign aid specialist and an adviser to the Liberian government.
“This has been a growing concern for several weeks now,” Radelet said.
Governments would like to offer hardship pay to regular health workers and many others who are risking their lives, but are often limited by rules on who can be paid and for what. “Clearly, the longer this crisis continues, the more difficult this question will become,” Radelet said.
Treatment and containment capacity is what hardest-hit countries need most, said Francisco Ferreira, the World Bank’s chief economist for Africa.
“What that means is the building of additional treatment centers, the provision of protective equipment, and to the extent possible, the funds to pay and provide hazard pay to health care workers,” he said.
Meanwhile, an international member of the United Nations medical team in Liberia has contracted Ebola — the second member of that mission to get sick. The first died on Sept. 25.
The mission is identifying and isolating others who may have been exposed and reviewing procedures to mitigate risk, Karin Landgren, special repreentative of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said Wednesday.
The U.S. and British militaries are on their way, despite the risks.
Britain announced that more than 750 troops would help build treatment centers and a training facility in Sierra Leone, backed by the hospital ship RFA Argus and three Merlin helicopters. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said Britain is committed to supporting 700 new beds for Ebola patients.
The U.S. government is deploying 3,000 troops, but Lt. Gen. Steven Hummer, deputy commander of the U.S. military’s Africa command, said not all will stay. Military engineers will arrive first to build treatment units, then pull out.
“There is concern” among the troops that they could get infected, but that’s not likely, Hummer said. Only a small number of specialists will test blood samples for the virus, and the rest will provide managerial and logistical support from a safe distance, he said.
“The U.S. forces that go into Liberia will not be in a position to be exposed to the Ebola virus through working with patients,” he said.
Paye-Layleh reported from Monrovia, Liberia. Associated Press writers Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya, Jill Lawless in London and Paul Wiseman in Washington contributed to this report.