December 18, 2018

As Nigeria is declared formally free of Ebola, Israel preps for domestic readiness

Israeli officials welcomed the World Health Organization announcement on Oct. 20 that Nigeria has been declared formally free of Ebola following six weeks with no new cases of the deadly virus.

“This is an important development for Nigeria and highlights their swift and effective response,” said Dr. Roee Singer, deputy director of the Division of Epidemiology at the Ministry of Health in Jerusalem. 

“It’s also a relief for us, because Nigeria is not only the biggest country in Africa, Nigerians comprise the largest group of tourists who visit Israel from the continent,” Singer said.

[Related: Jews at the helm of U.S. Ebola response]

Recent years have seen a marked deepening of ties between Jerusalem and Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, with Israelis advising Nigeria on security measures to combat the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, as well as in development of water and agricultural resources and in the signing of a civil aviation agreement.

Singer added that the defeat of the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria will alleviate the need to put into effect the most stringent level of screening protocols for airline passengers, many of whom are Christians on pilgrimage journeys.

In Israel’s own effort to prevent the disease from entering the country, Ben Gurion Airport held an Ebola defense exercise on Oct. 17 with Immigration and Health ministry officials conducting a drill on how to locate passengers from high-risk countries, practicing isolation and preliminary medical treatment measures.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed Israel’s National Security Council to lead staff work on Israel’s domestic readiness to deal with the epidemic, even as the government dispatches three emergency clinics to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

“These fully equipped emergency clinics include personal protective gear for medical workers, and we are assisting the governments in operating them with help from Israeli civil society volunteers,” said Ambassador Gil Haskel, head of MASHAV — Israel’s Agency for International Development.

Other officials involved in the country’s Ebola response planning told the Jewish Journal that the prime minister is facing “tough choices” on the scope of Israel’s participation in the front line effort against the epidemic.

Israeli media reports claim Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had urged rejection of an American request for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to deploy army field hospitals to affected African countries similar to those sent to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Ya’alon is in Washington this week, and his spokeswoman declined to answer an inquiry from the Journal about the decision not to bring the IDF in on the Ebola response effort. Ya’alon has recently expressed strong dissatisfaction with the 2015 defense budget and has complained that non-military-related items eat up to a quarter of his ministry’s available funds.

“The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] have defined the next six months as the emergency phase,” said Yotam Politzer, a disaster response director for IsraAID who headed back to Sierra Leone on Oct. 21.

IsraAID is the nongovernmental organization designated by officials to recruit and train the Israeli volunteers who will operate the medical and psychological response to Ebola in West Africa.

“We are bringing at least 30 mental health specialists from Israel to do psychosocial training for medical workers, and we hope that at any given moment we will have at least a team of five or six professionals from here on the ground,” Politzer said.

“There are many organizations and institutions involved in the medical field, but no one is really taking care of the mental health aspects of the disaster, which is crucial, we think, to stop this outbreak,” Politzer added.

Despite the good news from Nigeria, Sierra Leone is still battling the epidemic, and Politzer’s team from IsraAID is making its base in the capital city, Freetown, where between 40 and 60 new cases are being reported daily.

At the Kenema Hospital, about 185 miles east of Freetown, 35 doctors and nurses died from Ebola in August.

The remaining staff, Politzer said, “didn’t receive any kind of counseling or emotional support. Many of them just don’t want to go back to work because they are scared and traumatized, having lost their colleagues, so providing support for the medical teams is extremely important.” Politzer added that IsraAID teams have drawn up plans to reach remote towns and villages on a consistent basis.

Navonel Glick, a 27- year-old program director at IsraAID, said the organization’s specialization in providing programs and therapy to traumatized communities comes from the experience the Jewish state has had in regrouping after wars and terror attacks.

Glick will be in Sierra Leone by the end of the week, having just returned to Israel from Iraqi Kurdistan, where the organization runs a program for Christians and Yazidis who have fled from the penetration of ISIS into the region.

“I would not say that my parents are thrilled, [and] all these situations have their own risks, but they’ve come to terms with the life that I’m leading,” Glick said.

“We have quite a lot of social workers and therapists volunteering to do the trainings. Yes, there are some people who have come for other missions that aren’t participating in this one. But, on the other hand, there are quite a number of people who feel this is important, and they are joining us because they understand that Ebola is something that really has become a global threat.”

IsraAID founding director Shachar Zahavi believes his group has the credibility and connections to raise the funds required for the kind of response the world expects from Israel and the global Jewish community.

“I can tell you that our partnership with the Los Angeles Jewish Federation and the Southern California Jewish community at large is supportive. They are very open-minded, and they see the global picture,” Zahavi said. “They supported us in Haiti and Japan and the Philippines.”

“IsraAID has approached all its Federation partners, from the West Coast to the East Coast, asking them to open a disaster relief fund for this Ebola epidemic so we can show the world that Israel and the Jewish people are at the forefront of disaster relief and helping communities around the world.” (At present, according to an email sent on Oct. 21 by Mitch Hammerman, spokesman for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the L.A. Federation is “not doing anything related to Ebola.”)