Before leaving for Sierra Leone, Special Representative of the Federal Government for the Fight against Ebola Walter Lindner spoke to Spiegel Online about the German Government’s efforts to counter the epidemic, the work carried out by medical personnel and his fears when it comes to encountering the virus.
Mr Lindner, you’ve just visited the Ebola-hit West African countries Liberia and Guinea, and this week you’re flying to Sierra Leone. How are you feeling in the run-up to your departure?
When Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked me to take on this role, I immediately knew that I had to see the situation on the ground for myself. I don’t just want to see how things look in the countries, I want to know how the millions of people in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are coping, what impact Ebola is having on their daily lives and on their societies. Of course, just as anybody would, you have your concerns when you’re in the affected areas and I have to say that I, too, am somewhat uneasy.
What was your first impression?
In Liberia and Guinea the feeling of anxiety sets in straight away, even in the airport. There, everything is about Ebola and the danger to one’s own life.
How does that manifest itself in concrete terms?
You constantly check your own body for possible symptoms. Is your temperature high? Do you have joint pain? And of course there is also a huge effect on interpersonal and social interaction. You mustn’t touch anyone, shake anyone’s hand and you have a constant, verging on irrational, fear that despite these precautions you have somehow been infected. This affects everyone equally, regardless of level of society, be it the government or elsewhere. On top of this, the fact that there are very few flights out of these countries creates a feeling of claustrophobia. It wasn’t easy for me to even get there.
Aid organisations are accusing the German Government of underestimating the danger.
The international community was slow to react, but we are amongst those who did respond relatively quickly. I understand some people’s impatience. Help is arriving – and we’re doing everything we can to ensure it does so as quickly as possible.
One organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières, has praised the progress that the German Government has made in helping tackle Ebola but has also said that on the ground, nothing has happened on the German side. How would you respond to that?
I have the utmost respect for organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières, which have been on the ground since the very beginning of the Ebola crisis and know the situation well. But still, notwithstanding all criticism, we are taking action! The Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine has set up a modern research lab on the ground which is carrying out examinations on Ebola. The Bundeswehr has formed an airlift to the region and is making regular trips there. The advance teams from the Federal Agency for Technical Relief, the German Red Cross and the Bundeswehr were present on the ground to establish where treatment centres should be set up.
What exactly is being done?
This week the Bundeswehr and the German Red Cross are starting to train volunteers here in Germany. Anyone who knows how quickly one can become infected is aware of the importance of careful preparation. The helpers will set off in a few weeks and wards for Ebola patients in Monrovia and Freetown, the capitals of Liberia and Sierra Leone, will start their work.
To date, three Ebola patients have been brought by private providers from Africa to specialist clinics in Germany, one of whom died. Will the Bundeswehr also bring Ebola patients here?
The Bundeswehr now has isolation stations which can be integrated in Transall planes and used for less severe cases. For serious cases we are currently relying on private providers, but we are working hard to find our own solution.
The EU now wants to appoint a special commissioner. Could we be getting carried away with Ebola bureaucracy?
It is a good thing for the EU to gain more visibility now, above all for smaller countries who, unlike the bigger countries, are not able to send their own medical teams to the front line. A European platform is important for them so that they can contribute too.
Ebola has been dealt with in different ways within the EU. At its airports, the Czech Republic is demanding proof of where passengers have travelled recently. No such measure exists in Germany. Why?
There are no direct flights between the countries affected by Ebola and Germany, but there is no set-in-stone procedure here. Everyone is aware of the issue and the situation is being constantly re-evaluated. Recently, health ministers held a meeting to discuss how to deal with arrivals and departures at airports. At the airport in Brussels where there are a lot of direct flights to and from Africa, Belgium now wants to start measuring passengers’ temperatures, something which France and Great Britain are already doing. Discussions on such issues are ongoing in the EU as well as here in our crisis task force.
Interview by Severin Weiland. Reproduced by kind permission of Spiegel Online.