Ebola and the Military in West Africa

By now everyone has heard about the Ebola crisis. Thousands of lives have been taken and the end of the epidemic is nowhere in sight. About a month ago, President Obama pledged to send close to 4,000 troops to West Africa to help manage the crisis [1]. Recently, the United Kingdom has announced they will send 750 troops to assist in the region. There is some logic behind this. The situation in West Africa is truly a global crisis; people are becoming infected at a rapid rate and it is beginning to spill over into Europe and the Americas. According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola outbreak is concentrated in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. These states lack sufficient medical facilities, doctors, and equipment to treat and save infected people. In some cases, the sick are even being turned away due to a lack of space in hospitals and treatment centres.


This is where the logic of sending troops comes in. The military is trained in keeping order and taking control of tense, high-pressure situations. Countries like the UK and the US are sending their soldiers because those men and women have the training and capabilities to organise the scarce resources and medical personnel in these African countries. However, not many other countries are sending troops, or even health care professionals to the region. Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, said “I think it would be a little irresponsible of an Australian government to order Australian personnel into this dangerous situation”[2]. Other countries like China have also decided against sending troops or large numbers of personnel. The Chinese government explains this decision by saying their medical professionals lack experience with Ebola and would be ill equipped to assist in the crisis.

The situation in West Africa is now without a doubt an internationally recognised global crisis. The question is how should governments and the international community be reacting and is sending in the military one of the best options?

Opinions are mixed. President Obama is calling for more states to send more men and supplies. Doctors Without Borders, which is playing a big role in treating patients in West Africa, rejected Australia’s offer of $2.5 million because they want doctors and health professionals instead[3]. On the other hand, Australia and China are offering what they feel they can, but they are being accused of not doing enough.

The decision of the UK and the US to send troops into the region has led to criticism. Some people are unhappy that the military’s attention is being diverted from current operations against other international threats like the Islamic State (ISIS). In the UK, citizens and government representatives are questioning why the Department for International Development or the charity sector are not taking more control over the Ebola situation.  I think that is a fair question. Without a doubt, the military would be successful in helping handle the situation in West Africa. However, governments need to be asking themselves if the military should be taking such a leading role in this situation. Currently, the US is leading the military offensive against ISIS with support from five Arab states, France, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and now the UK. With relatively few states involved in the fight against this terrorist organisation, the militaries of the UK and the US are already fairly busy.

The reaction of some international organisations, like Doctors Without Borders, is another issue. It is obvious that more doctors and health care workers are absolutely necessary to gain control over the outbreak in West Africa. Although, to refuse Australia’s offer of monetary aid is just ridiculous. Australia does not feel it has the capabilities to treat its people if they were to become infected and so all they feel comfortable contributing toward the cause, at this time, is money. It is important that international organisations, like Doctors Without Borders, that have extensive knowledge of the area stress that more countries need to get involved to defeat the Ebola crisis. However, there are other concerns and each country can only offer so much to each threat.

The discussion regarding foreign troops in West Africa has also, unsurprisingly, turned to an accusatory tone. Some are claiming the United States is using the Ebola outbreak as a cover to build up a US military presence in Africa. These people say the United States feels threatened by China’s ever growing economy and they want to gain some influence on the continent where China currently is the main investor. This claim is completely unfair. As of now, the United States is the biggest donor nation to the Ebola crisis. President Obama has sent nearly 4,000 troops and 400 million US dollars in aid and thousands of US volunteers have rushed to West Africa1. If the United States really wanted to build up U.S. military presence in Africa to combat the Chinese, they would not be acting this way. The US would be behaving much more selfishly. President Obama would have prevented anyone who had been in West Africa from entering the US, to protect American citizens. Also, the US would also not be sending millions of dollars, while they are in trillions of dollars of debt already, largely to the Chinese, to the affected West African countries.

The motives of the United States and the UK in sending their troops is of course being questioned, but it would be wrong to condemn these actions purely for their military nature. Whether a military is necessary to help control the spread of Ebola or not can and will be debated further. The military is trained to deal with crisis situations and to act efficiently and quickly; they seem the logical choice to help control the spread of the disease and to keep it from infecting people all over the world. However, the UK and especially the US military is already focused on other threats like terrorism in the Middle East. On the other side, countries who decide not to send military or personnel into West Africa, like Australia, also have good reason.

The world should be coming together in the face of this global health crisis. We should all be thinking and planning new ways to help the suffering people and ease the burden on the courageous volunteers, doctors, and military currently in Africa fighting this disease. We should not be attacking countries that are doing their best to help end this crisis.

[1] Drew Hinsha, “Cuban Doctors at the Forefront of Ebola Battle in Africa,” The Wall Street Journal, 9 October 2014. Accessed 15/10/14. http://online.wsj.com/articles/cuba-stands-at-forefront-of-ebola-battle-in-africa-1412904212.

[2] Dan Harrison and James Massola, “Prime Minister Tony Abbott says sending Australians to Ebola zone would be irresponsible,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 October 2014. Accessed 17/10/14. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/prime-minister-tony-abbott-says-sending-australians-to-ebola-zone-would-be-irresponsible-20141016-1178uo.html.

[3] Alan Oakley, “Ebola: Health agency demands Australia’s doctors, not money,” African Voice, 18 September 2014. Accessed 16/10/14. http://www.africanvoiceonline.co.uk/world-news/ebola-health-agency-demands-australias-doctors-not-money/.

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