Interview with Walter Lindner, Special Representative of the Federal Government for the Ebola Crisis, on the current situation in the countries affected by the epidemic. Published on www.spiegel.de (22 December 2014).
Mr Lindner, the Ebola epidemic – primarily in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea – has virtually disappeared from the public eye. Does that mean that we can be optimistic?
The situation on the ground remains difficult and anything but calm. Despite the fact that the number of infections has gone down in some places, it is still far too early to say that the danger is over. That Ebola has been pushed into the background in recent weeks is, of course, due to the fact that new big issues are constantly cropping up around the world parallel to this crisis.
Recently, there were reports claiming that there were no new cases in Nigeria and Senegal.
We should be very careful in our assessment of such assumptions. The number of Ebola cases varies considerably at the regional level, and also in the countries themselves. In Liberia, the number of new infections has gone down to 10 to 20 per day, with a similar trend in Conakry, the capital of Guinea. In Sierra Leone, by contrast, the number of new infections is still around 500 per week. We are all – and I mean all – learning more each day about how Ebola spreads and how we can best fight the virus. There will be setbacks and we still have a long way to go.
You have visited the region four times. What is your approach to Ebola?
I watch my health closely for 21 days, of course, which includes taking my temperature. I avoid shaking hands and physical contact. The people I encounter every day are aware of that – family, employees and journalists, even the ministers involved and the Federal Chancellor. The most important thing is not to become careless and think, for example, that you can let down your guard after visit number five. While the risk of infection is low – with responsible and prudent behaviour – also for someone like me, who enters the treatment tents, you have to remain focused and alert at all times.
There was initially a great deal of criticism of the Federal Government’s approach to the disease. What does Germany’s help look like in practice?
Of course our response came too late – the same goes for the entire international community. My job now is not to look to the past, but to ensure that German help arrives. And it is arriving. One example is the airlift by the German Air Force with over 130 flights in the region so far, which is transporting all sorts of things for the UN and the various aid organisations – from food and technical equipment to blankets and toys. This is greatly appreciated by all concerned. In another example, the Federal Agency for Technical Relief has provided 400 motorbikes with cool boxes to get blood samples to laboratories quickly. We have also set up test laboratories in several countries in Africa.
How are the wards faring?
The Red Cross and the Federal Armed Forces are operating a treatment centre in the Liberian capital Monrovia. Moreover, the Red Cross is making a substantial contribution to an Ebola ward run by the International Red Cross in Kenema, a provincial capital in Sierra Leone. Details relating to an expansion of efforts of the International and German Red Cross in Sierra Leone are currently being assessed.
What is the situation in Liberia’s capital Monrovia?
The number of new infections in Monrovia has actually been going down for a few weeks now. However, it is still too early to predict how things will continue to develop. Senate elections are scheduled in Liberia and then there is the Christmas period with the usual family visits. These are additional uncertainties – the positive numbers can therefore change again at any time. All treatment centres in Monrovia are on standby, even if there are currently surplus beds. The same goes for the treatment centre operated by the Red Cross and the Federal Armed Forces.
What are the doctors doing now specifically?
In order to deploy our volunteers in the region flexibly and react to changing numbers of new infections, we identified additional deployment tasks weeks ago. For example, German doctors and volunteers have been performing incoming inspections or triage at the largest hospital in Monrovia, the John F. Kennedy Medical Center. On arrival, they classify infected patients according to their level of infection in order to ensure that they receive the appropriate treatment. The same service is also being provided for the UN hospital, which is responsible for thousands of UNMIL mission personnel.
Is there sufficient German personnel?
For the current occupancy at both treatment centres, yes. Subsequent personnel is already on standby. It may then be the case that additional manpower is required. We also have to see whether the deployment of the International Red Cross in Sierra Leone will be stepped up. It may be the case that the German Red Cross will be in charge of additional beds there. We’ll have to see. We are moving forward one step at a time. Training personnel in Germany now for deployments that are weeks ahead in the future makes little sense. Their training should take place shortly before deployment where possible.
Interview conducted by Severin Weiland. Reproduced by kind permission of Spiegel Online.