America's ambassador in Liberia says progress must be quicker on Ebola

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, it’s The World. “Boots on the ground” is a phrase akin to raising taxes -- Americans just don’t want to hear it. But right now, there are American boots on the ground in Liberia. Not many, a few hundred US soldiers so far, but they have an important task: building ETUs, or Ebola Treatment Units. Eventually, some 4,000 American troops will be deployed to help tackle the epidemic in West Africa. Today, I spoke with the US ambassador to Liberia, Deborah Malac. She’s had assignments all over Africa in her career, but ambassador Malac told me that the Ebola crisis is her biggest ever diplomatic challenge.


Deborah Malac: It’s primarily, I think, the scale of the outbreak and the complexity of the response. It’s very easy to look at this and say “Oh, disease outbreak, we know how you break the chain of transmission. It must be quite simple. All you need to do is to take people out of communities and put them some place where they can receive safe care.” But building an ETU is not about simply clearing a space and then putting up a tent and moving six people in. There is a very precise outline, in order to protect both the patient and the caregivers, and there’s a great deal of equipment and supplies that need to come in and flow in, as well as a rotation of staff.


Werman: Right, ETU - an Ebola Treatment Unit. Now, a new arrival of 100 marines touched down yesterday. Precisely what are they doing?


Malac: Well, we have about 350 US military on the ground. The marines who arrived yesterday are largely to help be able to move around the country, to move supplies and people to the sites where the US military will be building these ebola treatment units, are all outside of Monrovia and, in some cases, in somewhat difficult places to reach.


Werman: So, it’s basically the government of Liberia, the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, that this is their country, it’s a sovereign nation that’s taking the lead on how to respond to this, is that right?


Malac: That is correct. We are here very much in support of the government of Liberia’s national strategy on the Ebola response. It’s always a bit of a challenge to coordinate everything, but we see a high degree of cooperation and coordination among all the partners and with the government of Liberia itself.


Werman: The diplomatic dance you’re doing with the Liberian government must be fairly tricky right now, because there’s a fine line between offering help in good will and trying not to trample a sovereign government. Are you meeting a lot with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf right now?


Malac: We enjoy an excellent relationship with the government and people of Liberia. We have very frank and open conversations. We all firmly believe that we need to keep borders open, we need to keep people traveling back and forth, it’s the only way to get assistance. The screening procedures in place here, we are quite comfortable with.


Werman: On that point, we’ve been hearing from experts here in the US that they applaud the announcement to screen arrivals from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea at five US airports, but they also tell us the screening has to happen, and rigorously so, at airports in West Africa. You’re confident enough, or are you pushing that frequently with the Liberian government?


Malac: The screening procedures that are in place at the airport in Monrovia have been in place since the end of July. They’ve been becoming increasingly more robust with the assistance of our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention experts, who have been out at the airport, in some cases on a near daily basis over the last 5 or 6 weeks. What is happening at the airport in Monrovia is absolutely the right procedure.


Werman: What has it been like for you personally, rolling through the streets of Monrovia everyday on your way to the US embassy and watching this disease rapidly engulf the life and the culture of the city?


Malac: So, we see a little bit of less commerce in the streets; children are not in schools, so we see a number of children on the streets. But there is a lot of normal life that continues. People are going to work, you can go to the marketplaces and there are market women selling items. So, in many ways it looks very normal on the surface, but because of the fact that you see the ambulances going through the street occasionally, obviously taking a sick person to one of the treatment units; occasionally you will see the trucks carrying the dead bodies when they are headed out to the crematorium. So, on the one hand, you see a very normal scene, but yet you have these moments where it’s very clear that something is quite different, particularly as you drive by where you have the treatment units already functioning. It’s always a reminder that this disease is ever present.


Werman: Ambassador, we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much for your time.


Malac: You’re welcome. Thank you very much.


Werman: That was US ambassador to Liberia, Deborah Malac.