Trump’s conflicted response to Ebola outbreak in Africa

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President Donald Trump

The United States is responding to the latest Ebola outbreak in Africa in contradictory ways that show conflicting policy currents within the Trump administration.

The White House proposed eliminating $252 million (Sh25.5 billion) in Ebola-containment contingency funding on May 8 — the same day that the Democratic Republic of Congo confirmed the return of the deadly disease.

Also on May 8, the White House announced the resignation of Tim Ziemer, a US Navy admiral in charge of the Trump team’s global health security initiatives.

OBAMA LEGACY

Some analysts saw the proposed Ebola funding cuts and Admiral Ziemer’s sudden exit as further indications of President Trump’s desire to undo many elements of former President Barack Obama’s legacy.

“Admiral Ziemer’s departure is deeply alarming, especially when the administration is actively working to cut funds that addressed past pandemics like Ebola,” warned US Congressman Ami Bera, a California Democrat.

Scaling back Obama-era commitments to global health programmes is also consistent with Mr Trump’s demonstrated intention of lessening US involvement in Africa and other parts of the world viewed as non-essential to Washington’s geopolitical interests.

PLEDGE

On May 22, however, Alex Azar, a Trump administration cabinet member, told the World Health Assembly in Geneva that the US will contribute $7 (Sh700 million) to combat the spread of Ebola in the DR CONGO.

That new funding, along with the dispatch of public health experts and protective equipment to Congo, returns the US to a leading role in responding to epidemics that could cross national borders.

Mr Azar, the top US health official, further promised on May 23 that “if it spreads, we will take further actions.”

The new moves signal that Mr Trump does not want to be viewed as indifferent to a potential global health emergency that could threaten the US itself.

FLAK

Mr Trump may be mindful of the barrage of criticism he encountered in 2014 after urging the Obama administration to bar entry to persons, including US citizens, who had contracted Ebola in Africa.

“The U.S. cannot allow Ebola-infected people back,” Mr Trump tweeted in 2014. “People that go to faraway places to help out are great — but must suffer the consequences!”

The Obama administration initially came under fire in 2014 for what critics viewed as its lagging response to an eruption of Ebola in West Africa.

But Mr Obama eventually ordered massive US intervention to stem an epidemic that would claim 11,300 lives, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Congress approved Mr Obama’s request for $5.4 billion (Sh546 billion) in emergency Ebola funds.

The US also deployed 2,800 military personnel to West Africa where they built 10 Ebola treatment facilities as well as a medical unit for infected health care workers.

US action is generally credited as a key factor in containing the virus that caused the Ebola outbreak in one of the poorest parts of the world.

OUTBREAK

The current course of the disease in the DR Congo does not approach the dimensions of what occurred in West Africa four years ago.

So far, 27 Congolese are believed to have died from Ebola-related causes. But the virus has spread to an urban area in DR Congo, sparking fears that it could prove difficult to control.

“We’re really just at the beginning” of the response to the new Ebola outbreak, Dr Peter Salama, deputy director of the World Health Organisation, warned in a speech on Wednesday.

The Trump administration’s vacillating policy on global health could thus be tested in the coming weeks.