West African Workers Respond to Ebola

Published December 5th, 2014 -  - 12.05.14


The threat of the Ebola virus remains at large in Western Africa, and the disease is impacting healthcare workers in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. In early November, hundreds of health workers involved in treating Ebola patients went on strike at a clinic in Sierra Leone. The clinic staff protested the government’s failure to pay an agreed weekly $100 “hazard payment” for workers treating Ebola patients. Workers also demanded measures to be taken in order to protect them from the virus which transfers by direct contact with blood and body fluids of infected humans and animals. More than 100 health workers have already died of the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone while providing medical care to Ebola patients. The Bandajuma clinic is run by medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which said it would be forced to close the facility if the strike continues. The Bandajuma clinic is the only Ebola treatment center in southern Sierra Leone. The clinic has 60 beds for Ebola patients, which is about a fifth of Sierra Leone’s total Ebola treatment capacity. U.N. officials have warned that the number of Ebola cases is surging in Sierra Leone due to a lack of treatment centers.

MSF said in a November 12th statement that the cause of the strike had been “resolved.” However, MSF’s emergency coordinator in Sierra Leone, Ewald Stars, told the BBC that about 60 patients had been left unattended because of the strike at the clinic in Bandajuma. MSF depends mainly on international health workers; however, Stars stressed that their numbers are not enough to keep the center operational long-term.

In response to the strikes, the government of Sierra Leone announced that it would provide a financial aid of $5,000 for families of nurses and doctors who died from Ebola, as well as weekly hazard allowance. Recently, burial workers in Sierra Leone dumped bodies in the street outside a hospital in protest at authorities’ failure to pay bonuses for handling Ebola victims. A spokesman for the striking workers, who asked not to be identified, said they had not been paid their weekly hazard allowance for seven weeks. 15 corpses were abandoned in the town of Kenema, with three bodies at a hospital entrance to stop people from entering. Authorities acknowledged that allowances have not been paid, but said that all the striking members of the Ebola Burial Team would be dismissed because “displaying corpses in a very, very inhumane manner is completely unacceptable,” said Sidi Yahya Tunis, the spokesman for the National Ebola Response Centre.

The strikes in Sierra Leone follows labor action in Liberia, a country that has also seen thousands of deaths from Ebola. In mid-October, health workers in Liberia went on strike for two days to demand higher wages. However, healthcare workers largely ignored the call to strike in order to care for the sick. They ended their strike for “humanitarian reasons” and due to the many requests received from different parts of the world to resume their work. Despite the fact that the most health care workers continued to treat patients, the workers association said they don’t have enough equipment to protect themselves and that the government is not meeting their needs.

The Ebola virus has had potentially devastating effects on West African nations’ economies. Half of the Liberian workforce, especially agricultural workers in rural areas, is no longer working due to the spread of the Ebola virus. Additionally, food prices in Liberia were more than 40 percent higher than usual in October, and more than 90 percent of residents surveyed by the World Bank said they were worried about having enough to eat. Other African nations, such as South Africa, are experiencing negative economic impact from the disease — despite the fact that Cape Town is further from the center of the epidemic in Freetown, Liberia (3,365 miles) than it is from London (3,172 miles), travelers have cancelled their plans to travel to South Africa en masse. Additionally, though it has not had a single case of Ebola, Morocco said it would not host the African Cup of Nations, the premier soccer event in Africa, which is due to start in January 2015. The Confederation of African Football has barred Morocco from participating, and organizers are “scrambling to find an alternative host” for this large tourist event. Though a few media outlets are cautiously optimistic, the World Bank estimates that Ebola’s negative economic impact is projected to be $3 billion to $4 billion and not the worst-case scenario of $32 billion.

Meanwhile, nurses in the United States are also striking to protest inadequate preparation at most hospitals to safely treat Ebola cases. The National Nurses United union called a strike in mid-November, demanding that healthcare workers who interact with Ebola patients be provided full-body hazmat suits, along with air-purifying respirators that meet the stringent standards of the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health.  Globally, Public Services International, a global trade union federation, has launched a video to name and honor the 325 doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, and cleaners, who have died of Ebola in West African countries. Going forward, governments and workers around the globe will continue to struggle to determine balanced hospital policies that adequately ensure the safety of medical staff and effectively treat Ebola patients.

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