Warm welcome for Brende in Liberia

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Norway’s foreign minister, Børge Brende, seemed to get a hero’s welcome when he traveled to ebola-infested Liberia on Monday. He’s believed to be the first foreign minister to make the trip, and he brought with him from Norway more money, the use of a military aircraft and encouragement to fight the epidemic.

Foreign Minister Børge Brende washing his hands in chlorine during his visit to Liberia on Monday. He wanted to learn more about the ebola crisis that has killed more than 4,000 people in recent months, and came armed with more aid from Norway. PHOTO: Heiko Junge / NTB Scanpix

Foreign Minister Børge Brende washing his hands in chlorine during his visit to Liberia on Monday. He wanted to learn more about the ebola crisis that has killed more than 4,000 people in recent months, and came armed with more aid from Norway. PHOTO: Heiko Junge / NTB Scanpix

Brende flew to Monrovia right after co-leading another top-level international meeting in Cairo to rebuild Gaza. His visit hit the front pages of local Liberian newspapers and he was quickly ushered into meetings with top Liberian officials including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She accepted a Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo three years ago, but her government has faced strong criticism at home for being slow to react to the ebola outbreak, and for allegedly failing to pay health care workers treating ebola patients. They went on strike over the weekend, claiming they hadn’t been paid, but later went back to work for the sake of their patients.

Norway announced last week that it was doubling its financial support for measures to fight the ebola epidemic and Brende donated another NOK 75 million (USD 11.7 million) to the cause while in Monrovia. That brings Norway’s total contribution to the battle against ebola to NOK 329 million.

Brende said that NOK 50 million of the additional funding will be channeled through the UN’s World Health Organization and its response plan. The WHO plan involves expanding treatment capacity, reducing risk of infection at funerals, searching for new cases of infection and building up health care systems in the west African countries most affected.

The WHO program has been criticized by Norwegian health care workers who have volunteered in the ebola effort in West Africa. Some  told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that many of the UN/WHO workers “spend most of their time sitting in their offices” instead of being out in the field. They urged Norway to give more money directly to the struggling local health care systems, and Brende said that would be considered but difficult to control. Norwegian officials historically have preferred to channel aid through organizations like the UN or Red Cross.

The other NOK 25 million in additional funding will be sent to the Norwegian Research Council’s program for global health and vaccination research (NOK 15m) and to the WHO’s research program on tropical diseases (NOK 10m).

Norway’s Defense Ministry also announced it would make one of the Norwegian Air Force’s Hercules transport planes available for Great Britain to use in its efforts to help Sierra Leone for three months. The large aircraft can be used for medical evacuation and can also carry a specially equipped ambulance.

Brende, who traveled to Liberia with Dr Raj Shah of the US’ foreign aid agency USaid, said the goal of the trip was to “get better information about what should be done, to mobilize more international contributions and show international solidarity with the countries suffering from the epidemic.” Brende, like all others, had his temperature taken frequently while in Monrovia, had to wash his hands in chlorine and refrained from handshakes with anyone. He said he hadn’t been anxious about making the trip into a country where the deadly virus is raging.

President Johnson told news bureau NTB that she was “grateful” that Brende came to her country. “It sends a signal about support for us,” she said.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund