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U.S. Ambassador To Liberia: Many Challenges Remain In Ebola Response

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's been three weeks since President Obama promised to deploy thousands of U.S. troops to Liberia and build 18 Ebola treatment centers there. But the U.S. has barely broken ground on the first of those treatment centers. We're going to hear now from the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia Deborah Malac. Ambassador Malac, welcome to the program.

DEBORAH MALAC: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And what is holding up the construction of these field hospitals? We know that the aid group Doctors Without Borders manages to put up hospitals like this in three weeks. What's taking so long?

MALAC: This is a very complicated process when you're planning for not just the construction but also the supply of these Ebola treatment units. You need to ensure that you have adequate PPE - personal protective equipment - water, sanitation, all of those pieces, ready to go once the construction is completed.

BLOCK: OK, so when you put all those pieces together, when will the very first of these treatment units not only be constructed but staffed and able to receive patients there in Monrovia?

MALAC: I would love to be able to give you a definite date but I don't have it at the moment because we have delays that are unforeseen with weather. It rains very hard here, which means that certain construction can't go on. But I wish I could give you an exact date. I can't.

BLOCK: If you can't give an exact date, can you give a timeframe? Are we talking weeks? Are we talking months? What are we looking at here?

MALAC: Oh, I would say within two weeks.

BLOCK: To be up and running for the first one?

MALAC: Yes.

BLOCK: You mentioned weather as a problem and rains. What are some of the other hurdles that stand in the way of a more nimble response? Things that we might not be thinking of that are real problems on the ground there in Liberia?

MALAC: Liberia, as you know, had a 14 year civil war, which devastated its infrastructure in every way imaginable. And so they've spent the last 11 years rebuilding, or trying to rebuild, some of that infrastructure but it's still a huge constraint. There's a road network that is only a small percentage is paved. You have to be able to have airlift. You have to be able to get supplies in because a lot of them are not available in the interior, communications as well. The communication system is not fully complete. Cell phone coverage is not even available in some parts of the country. Power is a huge constraint here, only about 23 megawatts of generated power in the entire country. And that's mostly in Monrovia. So there are a lot of constraints to being able to move quickly but we are pushing and leaning forward as fast as we can.

BLOCK: Ambassador Malac, I recently interviewed on this program Doctor Kent Brantly. He's the American physician who contracted Ebola while he was treating patients in Liberia, and he had some very strong words about the international response to the epidemic. He said the global community was way too sluggish. He said he and his colleagues knew about this outbreak by the end of March and the response has been way too slow. Let's listen to a little bit of what he said in that interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KENT BRANTLY: We've waited two and a half months since I was told the U.S. government put their eye on the situation. We cannot afford to wait another two and a half months. We cannot afford to wait to have weeks. We must act now.

BLOCK: Do you understand the frustration of folks like Doctor Brantly who have been on the front lines of this epidemic, seeing patients dying all around them and seeing what, to them, must seem like glacial pace of response?

MALAC: Certainly, I understand that frustration but remember I've been here since March. My entire staff has been here since March. This embassy has been open. We are experiencing many of the same things that everyone else is going through. We all have no other goal at the moment other than to move as fast as we possibly can to do our piece of what needs to happen to get this epidemic under control. We can't sit around down and talk about we might've done differently. We need to move ahead.

BLOCK: Does it feel overwhelming to you, Ambassador Malac?

MALAC: I don't feel overwhelmed so much anymore. To be honest, you know, there were some times maybe in July and August where things look very glum. And we and the government of Liberia and our neighbors here - Sierra Leone and Guinea - we're a little at sea because we were wondering where and how to get on top of this large outbreak. But now I am quite optimistic. Every other outbreak has been ended and this one will too. It's a question of how soon but we will get it done.

BLOCK: Ambassador Malac, thanks very much for talking with us.

MALAC: Thank you very much, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's Deborah Malac. She's the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia and spoke with those from Monrovia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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