Could the U.S. have prevented the Ebola outbreak?

A fateful decision by U.S. Marines in 1990 regarding Ebola?

In the summer of 1990, some 2,000 U.S. Marines arrived off the coast of Liberia near the capital of Monrovia, which was then being overrun by rebel forces fighting against the government of Samuel Doe. The Marines were in four ships, one of them an amphibious landing craft.

Many, perhaps most, in Monrovia assumed the Marines would land and put an end to the insanity that had gripped their country since Charles Taylor launched his rebellion in an outlying district the previous December.

Instead, a few hundred of the Marines eventually helicoptered in and evacuated U.S. citizens. The four ships steamed off into the distance, abandoning Liberia to its fate. To Liberians, it was as if the cavalry in a Western movie had showed up in the nick of time, but stopped and galloped off before saving the day.

I thought of this image when U.S. troops started landing in large numbers in Liberia, this time to help stem the epidemic of Ebola. I had heard the story of the Marines sailing away in 1990 from Liberians when I went there in 1995 as a correspondent for The Sun. The fate that the Marines left behind in Liberia was one of bloody chaos as the so-called rebel armies proved to be little more than armed gangs of thugs — raping, killing and pillaging.

On that 1995 trip — it was a rare moment of calm in Liberia before a few more years of chaos — I saw the John F. Kennedy Medical Center, an impressive edifice that opened in 1971 and was built mainly with American aid funds. Like so many emblems of western-style progress, it had been shot up and looted by the roving rebels not only in the Taylor-led rebellion but also in the coup that installed the illiterate Samuel Doe as chief of state in 1980. Modernity itself was an enemy.

That hospital, now reopened under the enlightened but poverty-stricken government of Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, is one of those in the news these days. It is not treating Ebola patients — indeed its staff works to keep them out of its wards, sending them to Ebola clinics. But it is trying to take care of those suffering from other diseases, people who are now dying in numbers that dwarf Ebola victims because that virus has shut down so much of the fragile health care system.

Liberia has a complex and tortured history. It is the closest the United States has to a colony in Africa as it was founded by freed American slaves in the early part of the 19th century, declaring its independence in 1847. Unfortunately these so-called Americo-Liberians applied the lessons they learned from their slave masters to the native peoples they found there. The tensions that resulted were exploited in the Doe and Taylor rebellions.

But one thing you find throughout the country is a love of the United States. Though Liberians have an exaggerated view of their strategic and historical importance to America, their admiration is evident: Their flag is a version of the Stars and Stripes, their currency is called a dollar, their constitution was modeled on ours.

In conversations in 1995, many made clear they were hurt and stunned by the 1990 abandonment. It was as if a family member had deserted them. But it was a family member, a wealthy one, they still loved and were certain would return. Once again, they were awaiting deliverance by the U.S. And the Marines did return in 1996, almost 3,000 again in ships visible from Monrovia. But once again only a few hundred Marines helicoptered in. They fought off an attack on the U.S. embassy compound and evacuated several hundred people and, as in 1990, left.

We will never know what would have happened if the Marines had landed in 1990. It may well be that their appearance would have been like standing up to a bully in the schoolyard — the undisciplined gangs, including the Liberian army, would have thrown down their weapons and some order could have been restored.

If that had happened the rebellion would not have crossed the border into Sierra Leone, causing the same chaos and destruction there. The health care systems of those two countries would not have fallen into ruin and would have been capable of containing the outbreak of Ebola.

And then we wouldn't need to be sending the troops heading there now.

Former Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Hill was the bureau chief in Johannesburg from 1993 to 1996, covering the continent of Africa. His email is hillforg@aol.com.

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