Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Growing Crisis In Liberia

World attention last week focused on the escalating war between Israel and Hamas, then the shot down passenger plane in Ukraine.  A humanitarian disaster, however, has hit West Africa hard.  Over 700 have died in possibly the worst Ebola virus outbreak ever.  And the usual measures have not contained its spread. The coastal nation of Liberia has taken the most severe hits while adopting the most radical containment measures.

Ebola virus is one of the deadliest on earth.  It affects humans and other primates, such as gorillas and chimpanzees.  Four of the five strains can infect human beings. According to the Center For Disease Control, the virus first appeared in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976.  It appears, spreads rampantly for a time, then dies away only to return sporadically.  Ebola causes hemorrhagic fever, symptoms of which can appear anywhere from two to 21 days of infection. The disease has a very high rate of transmission and can spread by contact with bodily fluids.

Liberia, led by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has taken strong steps to stop the spread of the virus in her country. The descendant of American born slaves, who is also the first female to win a head of state or government election in Africa, closed almost all border checkpoints.  International flights to and from Liberia have mostly ceased.  The country also suspended soccer matches and even imposed regulations on how many people may ride in an elevator.  Liberia's government embarked on a campaign to increase awareness and encourage better hygiene.

Outbreaks have also occurred in neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone.

One troubling aspect of the outbreak has been the infection of doctors treating the patients.  Liberia's most prominent expert in the virus, Dr. Samuel Brisbane, became infected at later died at Monrovia's John F. Kennedy Medical Center.  An American doctor and a North Carolina based missionary have also suffered infection.  A Ugandan doctor also died of the disease.

Liberia has a special relationship with the United States that few know about.  After the War of 1812, many Americans became troubled about continued use of slaves in the southern states.  The American Colonization Society, led in part by James Monroe and Chief Justice John Marshall, encouraged the emancipation of slaves and their return to Africa. They carved out a plot on the western coast, settled, organized an agriculture and trade based economy, and formed a government.  Liberia's capital, Monrovia, honors President James Monroe.  Another city is named after President James Buchanan.

As Europeans later in the century divided up Africa, US influence ensured that British, French, and German colonists stayed away from Liberia.  Occasionally, the US Navy would help its government put down revolts of the native African peoples.  A social divide between the natives and the Americo-Liberians remains to this day.

The country remains one of the poorest in the world. Today the Tennessee sized nation has about 4 million people. Its mining of ore and diamonds, plus natural rubber production and small scale agriculture, do not offset an unemployment rate of over 85 percent.  Decades of civil war and dictatorships ruined a once capable economy.  Democracy returned to Liberia after an Marine expedition sent in President George W. Bush's first term.  Johnson won election in 2005 and has remained in office ever since.  Her government's efforts to rebuild the shattered nation are seriously threatened by the disruptions caused by the Ebola outbreak.

Despite Liberia's efforts, the disease continues to defy attempts at control.

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