I spent two months in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak. Since I’ve returned to the U.S., people often ask me how it was. I tend to say, "horrible." They usually reply, "I bet." Then I mumble about how it was horrible for reasons they don’t imagine. They’re picturing photos from the news – dead bodies, hysterical patients, alien biohazard suits– all of which are real. But that wasn’t what gutted me.
Other people struggle for a positive angle. They’ll mention uplifting Ebola news. For example, DNA sequencing suggests the virus has not become more infectious; new materials absorb liquids infected with the virus; and there are these stickers that help patients identify nurses draped in protective gear. But their good-natured sentiments make my heart ache, and it’s not long before I confess disenchantment. We, as a global community, have thrown more than $3 billion at Ebola, but the brave nurses who risked their lives to quite literally stop the virus have been mistreated.
I recently attended the World Health Assembly in Geneva, where I witnessed a tribute ceremony to health workers. Speeches were made, candles lit and refreshments served. Nice gestures, but by now I’ve spent enough time with nurses to feel quite confident in saying they’d prefer cash, respect and true partnership.
Last month, Newsweek published my investigation into why so many frontline nurses were underpaid throughout the outbreak – and why there’s little hope that nurses will be paid fairly afterward.
As I reported in Newsweek, the problems during the outbreak appeared to be twofold. First, Sierra Leone's national health system has been so underfunded for so long that it was a monumental challenge to document all of the country's care workers and set up payment distribution channels to them. Second, donors set aside relatively little money for local front-line staff within Sierra Leone's health system in the first place. Less than 2 percent of $3.3 billion in donations to fight Ebola in West Africa was earmarked for them.
In writing this piece, I don’t mean to insult any well-intentioned program. Instead, the question I ask – and that I’d like taxpayers from donating countries to consider – is should we shift priorities, so that health workers in the countries’ health systems get the support they need to do their jobs?