MONROVIA (Reuters) - Many Liberian healthcare workers on the front line of the battle against Ebola ignored calls on Monday to strike over poor pay and working conditions, and most hospitals and clinics were operating normally, officials and charity workers said.
Despite the strike threat apparently being averted in Liberia, Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said she had never before seen a disease contribute so strongly to “potential state failure”, pointing to Ebola’s impact on a string of weak West African nations.
More than 4,000 people have died of the viral hemorrhagic fever in West Africa, mostly in Liberia, neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea. It has also reached Nigeria, Senegal, Spain and the United States but outbreaks have been contained so far.
Alphonso Weah, head of medical staff at Liberia’s 150-bed Island Clinic in the capital Monrovia, said workers had decided to come in after appeals from the general public.
“We have agreed, collectively as a community, to go back to work,” Weah told a popular radio talk show.
But George Williams, secretary-general of the National Health Workers Association of Liberia, said the government was pressuring workers by trying to shame them and offering money.
“The President (Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf) went to various Ebola Treatment Units, giving them money and asking those who are not a true Liberian to put up their hands that they would strike.”
Information Minister Lewis Brown said the president had been donating food items, money and scholarships to healthcare workers to show her appreciation of their work and not to undermine the strike.
Healthcare workers are particularly vulnerable to Ebola because the disease is spread through direct contact with body fluids from an infected person.
More than 95 healthcare workers in Liberia have died, about the same number as in Sierra Leone, the WHO has said. The two people who have been infected outside Africa were both healthcare workers - nurses - who treated Ebola patients.
“I have never seen a health event threaten the very survival of societies and governments in already very poor countries,” Chan said in a speech in the Philippines.
“The outbreak spotlights the dangers of the world’s growing social and economic inequalities. The rich get the best care. The poor are left to die.”
Liberia has the highest number of infections and deaths of any country, with 2,316 deaths. Yet government healthcare employees say they are still working without basic protective clothing and are not receiving adequate compensation.
The strike was supposed to have started at midnight on Monday but Brown said reports from across the country indicated that most hospitals and clinics were running normally.
A spokeswoman for medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said their two Ebola Treatment Units (ETU) - in Monrovia and the northern county of Lofa - were operating normally. Staff there have different pay and conditions to governments clinics.
There are only six ETUs functioning in Liberia - three operated by MSF and International Medical Corps (IMC), and the remainder by the government. U.S. military personnel, currently deploying to Liberia, plan to construct up to 17 more.
Health Minister Walter Gwenigale said he was working to implement a promised pay rise. “That money is available and is being paid. So please, please stay with your patients.”
The government had received reports of some workers on strike in certain parts of Liberia but was doing everything to return them to work, Deputy Health Minister Matthew Flomo said.
Months into the crisis, concern that Ebola could spread globally has spurred the international community to step up support for the affected countries with medical personnel, material and pledges of about $1 billion to tackle the epidemic.
However, Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. Ebola response mission, known as UNMEER, warned on Monday that there were still too few resources to keep pace with the new victims.
“There’s a scarcity gap between what is available and what’s required. We need to make some tough decisions about where do we invest our scarce resources to produce maximum effect,” Banbury told Reuters in Accra, Ghana, where the mission is based.
Having visited the three worst affected nations, Banbury said the mission would assess the priorities in coming days and present plans to the various governments.
Additional reporting by Bate Felix in Dakar and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by David Lewis and Bate Felix; Editing by Mark Heinrich