When the Ebola virus was first identified in March as the cause of a series of mysterious deaths in the remote forests of Guinea, Europe moved quickly to battle a disease that has now infected more than 7,000 Africans and already killed around half of those. It mobilized more money and health workers than the United States, China or anyone else for West Africa.
But, proud of its long record as the world’s biggest donor of humanitarian aid, Europe has since suffered a blow to its self-image of can-do generosity. Its own efforts to contain the lethal virus have been overshadowed by President Obama’s announcement last month that he was sending 3,000 troops to West Africa to build hospitals and otherwise help in the fight against Ebola.
While a few left-wingers sneered at the American deployment as yet another example of Washington’s taste for military intervention — and praised Cuba for sending more than 100 doctors to West Africa — many European officials and politicians welcomed the move and wondered why what had been a European-led international effort to contain the virus had clearly not worked.
Now, with Europe grappling with the first case of Ebola transmitted on its soil after news on Monday that a nurse in Madrid had been infected, European leaders are scrambling to coordinate and ramp up their response to the lethal disease. As public anxieties grow, politicians on the far right are seizing on the Ebola crisis to demand sharp curbs in immigration, while those on the left rail against Europe’s colonial past and its failure to do more to help Africa contain the virus.
Pressure to contain the epidemic has prompted European Union officials in Brussels to start meeting daily with aid groups and representatives from member states to discuss how to best respond to the crisis. Europe’s emergency response unit, housed in a drab Brussels office block, used to focus on monitoring natural disasters and wars, but now tracks Ebola around the clock.
“Speed is of the essence, and there is a feeling that all of us have been behind the curve,” Claus Sorensen, director general of Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, a department of the European Union’s Brussels administration, said in an interview.
For many months, the struggle against Ebola was a largely African and European effort. Doctors Without Borders, which was founded in France, set up a series of treatment centers. Its doctors and nurses stayed put while those of some other groups, like Samaritan’s Purse of the United States, pulled out after staff members became infected.