On Thursday, October 23, Dr. Craig Spencer tested positive for Ebola at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. Spencer, who had been working in West Africa with Doctors Without Borders, marked the fourth case of the infection being diagnosed in the United States. As the number of confirmed Ebola cases rises past 10,000 (of which nearly 5,000 patients have died), questions have arisen anew as to whether Canada is contributing enough to the global effort to fight the virus.
In the week prior to Dr. Spencer’s diagnosis, Prime Minister Stephen Harper informed United States President Barack Obama that Canada would soon announce additional measures to fight the Ebola epidemic. Harper later confirmed that Canada would contribute an additional $30 million, bringing the country’s total commitment to $65 million.
In addition to monetary support, Canada has provided $2.5 million worth of medical equipment and two teams of scientists to staff mobile diagnostic laboratories in Sierra Leone. To great international fanfare, it has also recently sent the first batch of an experimental vaccine to Geneva, Switzerland for clinical trials. Yet despite these actions, many people remain critical of the federal government’s efforts, and continue to call for increased efforts – and rightfully so.
Of the $65 million Canada has pledged so far, only $5 million had actually been deployed to combat Ebola as of mid-October. To make matters worse, Health Canada has auctioned off stockpiled personal protective equipment (PPE), a move that has been subject to significant criticism. Between February and August of 2014, the federal government auctioned off $1.5 million of PPE for a mere $30,000. Even after a request from Sierra Leone’s ambassador in Washington for medical resources, an additional 1.3 million masks and 209,000 gloves were auctioned off. As the death toll rose, and officials made more and more calls for assistance, why were these excess resources not directly funnelled to aid organizations?
Rahul Singh, the Director of Emergency Programs at GlobalMedic (a Canadian charity dedicated to international disasters), has publicly acknowledged that entrepreneurs who purchased the auctioned-off PPE supplies were attempting to resell them to his charity at an exorbitant mark-up. Singh contacted Health Minister Rona Ambrose in September to offer to transport Health Canada’s additional stockpile of medical supplies into Ebola-affected areas in West Africa, but has not yet received a response.
In considering solely the total number of deaths, the Ebola virus may seem relatively innocuous compared to the number of Africans killed by HIV/AIDS, malaria, or malnutrition each year. But the challenge with Ebola is how quickly it can ravage communities supported by the third world health care systems typical of underdeveloped West African nations. Health care workers do not die en masse when treating AIDS or hunger, yet face that risk when treating Ebola, a deadly infection easily transmitted through contact with blood, mucus, saliva, or other bodily fluids.
Guinea, one of the nations hit hardest by Ebola, is equipped with only 10 doctors per 100,000 people — a comparable look at the United States puts that figure at 245.2 doctors per 100,000. Ebola has had a detrimental impact on already overburdened health care systems in West Africa, claiming 244 deaths among 433 cases of infected medical staff (as of October 19th). Looking at the epidemic in economic terms, the World Bank has estimated a loss of $32.6 billion in a worst-case scenario should the disease spreads beyond Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. The United Nations Security Council has called the Ebola outbreak a “threat to world peace.”
Despite the various efforts and commitments made by the international community to combat the Ebola epidemic, it is clear that more needs to be done to address both the damage already induced by the disease, and to deter it from resulting in an even greater number of deaths. Canada is a wealthy nation, and has an obligation to honour its full financial commitment and to provide as many resources as possible — including much-needed PPEs, such as masks and gloves — to assist personnel combatting the disease in West Africa. In doing so, the federal government must work to reverse the damage done from foolishly auctioning off stockpiled health care resources for small economic gains.
In addition to following through on its commitment to providing financial aid, and distributing much-needed PPEs, Canada should also commit to tackling Ebola on the front lines. The Canadian government’s hesitation to send medical personnel to West Africa without a guaranteed evacuation plan in understandable; however, while the experimental vaccine continues to work its way through clinical trials, it should work to finalize such a plan so that Canadian health workers can immediately join their international counterparts in West Africa once the vaccine is ready for use.
By containing and attacking Ebola at its source, Canada has an opportunity to play a major role in finally bringing an end to this devastating virus. At current, we are simply not doing enough.
For more information about emergency preparedness when facing health crises, tune into Beyond the Headlines on 89.5FM CIUT on November 17th.
Tracy Wang is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Science from McGill University, where she completed a major in Cell and Molecular Biology and a double minor in English Literature and Economics. Tracy is particularly interested in health policy, but looks to also explore economic and education policy further.