By Kevin Sieff
Near the hillside shelter where dozens of men and women died of Ebola, a row of green U.S. military tents sit atop a vast expanse of imported gravel. The generators hum; chlorinated water churns in brand-new containers; surveillance cameras send a live feed to a large-screen television.
There’s only one thing missing from this state-of-the-art Ebola treatment center: Ebola patients.
The U.S. military sent about 3,000 troops to West Africa to build centers like this one in recent months. They were intended as a crucial safeguard against an epidemic that flared in unpredictable, deadly waves. But as the outbreak fades in Liberia, it has become clear that the disease had already drastically subsided before the first American centers were completed. Several of the U.S.-built units haven’t seen a single patient infected with Ebola.
It now appears that the alarming epidemiological predictions that in large part prompted the U.S. aid effort here were far too bleak. Although future flare-ups of the disease are possible, the near-empty Ebola centers tell the story of an aggressive American military and civilian response that occurred too late to help the bulk of the more than 8,300 Liberians who became infected. Last week, even as international aid organizations built yet more Ebola centers, there was an average of less than one new case reported in Liberia per day.
“If they had been built when we needed them, it wouldn’t have been too much,” said Moses Massaquoi, the Liberian government’s chairman for Ebola case management. “But they were too late.”
It was impossible to predict the decline in the Ebola caseload last September, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested a worst-case scenario of 1.4 million victims in West Africa. At that point, the American military’s logistical and engineering prowess appeared to be urgently needed — even if critics said the assistance was slow to arrive.
“With that kind of dire prediction from the CDC, and not having seen anything like this before, we had to try everything at our disposal,” said Douglas Mercado, the top USAID official in Liberia.