The UN World Health Organization reports that an unprecedented number of West African health care workers have been infected by the Ebola virus. As of August 25, 240 doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers in the nations hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak have contracted the disease and 120 have died.
In an act of solidarity, National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the US, has initiated a national fund raising effort to provide protective gear to West African health care workers in the frontlines of the battle against the contagious and deadly disease.
National Nurses United executive director Rose Ann DeMoro blamed the failure to contain the Ebola virus on cuts to the public health care systems imposed on developing countries at the center of the Ebola crisis–Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
During the last three decades, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have required these and other developing countries seeking development loans to reduce their investments in public resources such as health care, so that more money could be redirected to private investment.
“Neo-liberal programs in a global economy dominated by international banks and the governments aligned with them that have starved health programs and other public services while shifting resources to transnational corporations and other wealthy interests,” said DeMoro in an opinion column appearing in the Huffington Post.
NNU’s fund raising effort, which is being organized by the Registered Nurses Response Network, a project of the NNU, seeks money to provide expensive protective gear for health care workers treating Ebola patients.
According to the WHO, shortages of protective gear is one of the main reasons that so many health care workers have been infected with Ebola.
“In many cases, medical staff are at risk because no protective equipment is available–not even gloves and face masks,” reads WHO’s report on the dire situation.
Out of the 3,000 people infected by Ebola in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, nearly 10 percent have been health care workers.
WHO also said that there are too few staff to deal with the outbreak, causing those who care for Ebola patients to work for long stretches without breaks, which leads to exhaustion, which in turn makes them more prone to mistakes.
In addition to working long hours without sufficient protective gear, some health care workers in Liberia and Sierra Leone have not been paid.
The lack of pay caused some health care workers at the John F. Kennedy hospital in Monrovia, Liberia to go on strike for a short time.
“Health workers have died (fighting Ebola), including medical doctors at … JFK and to have them come to work without food on their table, we think that is pathetic,” said George Williams, secretary-general of the Health Workers Association of Liberia to Reuters.
Williams told Reuters that health care workers at the hospital had gone two months without pay.
Despite threats to their own safety and the lack of pay, health care workers have fought valiantly to turn the tide against this deadly disease, but the crisis continues to grow.
DeMoro writes that in addition to cuts to public health services, other factors are making this epidemic hard to control.
Extreme poverty, which to some extent is the result of austerity policies imposed on the affected nations, and climate change have created conditions that make people more vulnerable to Ebola.
Poverty means that many African don’t have access to adequate health care, and, according to DeMoro, climate change has caused deforestation, which has caused animals that carry the Ebola virus to lose their habitats and has brought them in closer contact with humans.
DeMoro writes that a tax on risky financial transactions, known as the Robin Hood tax, could generate revenue needed to deal with the Ebola crisis and other problems related to it.
“Hundreds of billions of dollars would be raised by wider enactment of the Robin Hood tax, funds that could be used directly to attack under funding of health programs and poverty that contribute to the outbreaks and their rapid spread,” writes DeMoro. “Robin Hood funds would also help mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, which also has links to Ebola.”
For now though, DeMoro and other NNU leaders are urging people to show their solidarity with the health care workers of West Africa by making a donation to the fund raising effort for medical protective gear.