Obama Wants to be Leader of Global Ebola Fight

by Kathy Jones on  October 11, 2014 at 5:30 PM General Health News
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The strong stance adopted on the fight against Ebola by US President Barack Obama could figure prominently in his Africa legacy.
 Obama Wants to be Leader of Global Ebola Fight
Obama Wants to be Leader of Global Ebola Fight

The US president has sharply criticised the international community for not doing enough to curb the epidemic, which has already claimed more than 4,000 lives since the initial outbreak in West Africa earlier this year.

Obama, who last month called the health crisis a "potential threat to global security," has ordered at least 3,000 US military personnel to the region to help curtail the spread of the virus.

From the United Nations -- where he said, "we are not moving fast enough. We are not doing enough" -- to the White House, Obama has offered increasingly strident warnings.

He has also said the United States cannot respond alone and called out "other countries" that did not see the writing on the wall about the disease raging through Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

"It's a sign of leadership and it has been welcome. The US administration's moves on this have definitely provoked others to step up," said Joe Cerrell, the managing director of global policy and advocacy for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has pledged $50 million to the cause.

"But it is still early. We just don't yet know the full scale of this outbreak, we don't know how big it's going to get and we don't yet know the full extent of resources that are going to be needed to get it under control."

- Seeking a balance -

Obama's predecessor George W. Bush made his name in Africa with his efforts in the battle against another deadly epidemic -- HIV/AIDS.

Launched in 2003, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) had an initial goal of pumping $15 billion into fighting AIDS in poor countries over five years.

The Obama administration, which has always hailed the relevance of the program, has since renewed and expanded it.

Faced with increasing fears about Ebola, Obama has sought to find the balance between reassuring a worried public at home -- where any news of a possible case is greeted with blanket media coverage -- and quickly mobilising resources in West Africa.

"I want to assure everybody that the likelihood of an epidemic here in the United States is extraordinarily small," he said late Thursday at a Democratic party fundraiser in California.

"But there's a humanitarian crisis that's happening right now in West Africa where children are dying on the streets alone."

- Congressional support -

Some Democrats and Republicans have called for a ban on flights coming into the United States from the three most affected countries, a move the Obama administration sees as counter-productive.

But the White House's initiatives abroad have earned praise from both sides of the political aisle -- a rare occurrence in a period of partisan acrimony ahead of next month's mid-term elections.

Lawmakers unanimously approved the administration's request for $88 million to combat the disease.

The irony is that, since taking office nearly six years ago, Obama had made an effort to change the perception of Africa as a continent associated with war, disease and poverty.

A president who once hailed Africa as "the world's next major economic success story" gathered most of the continent's leaders at an August summit in Washington focused on trade and economic opportunity.

The worrying progression of the Ebola outbreak barely made waves at the unprecedented meeting. But since then, the White House has markedly stepped up its response.

What changed? The White House refuses to cite any one incident, but highlights the impact of the visit to Africa in early September of the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thomas Frieden.

"He saw firsthand the destruction the virus had brought and came back and reported it to the president," a senior administration official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"It became clear that the purely civilian response would not be able to contain this virus and that we would need to leverage the resources and capabilities of the US military on top of that."

For Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, Obama's Africa policy will surely not be summed up by the fight against the epidemic alone.

"If the action on Ebola is effective, it will be what protects the larger legacy," Pham told AFP.

That legacy would be to help "shift the view of Africa, in the United States in particular, from that of Africa the needy object of assistance to Africa the economic opportunity -- that is, an opportunity not just for Africans but also for the world."

Source: AFP

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