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Row over Germany's Ebola mission

Success or failure? At its conclusion, the Bundeswehr's mission against Ebola in Liberia has had mixed results. Green party politicians have criticized "weeks of incapacity" and delays in providing help.

As he steps off the plane at Berlin Tegel airport, head doctor Sven Funke has just spent six weeks fighting the Ebola epidemic. Along with seven colleagues, he has just returned from the Liberian capital of Monrovia - and it feels good.

"That was in fact a really good feeling," Funke told DW. "The number of new Ebola cases dropped significantly during the mission in Liberia. That gave us the opportunity to take a deep breath and withdraw for a while." And, he added, it was a relief for everyone who had been fighting the epidemic in Liberia.

Funke volunteered for the Ebola mission. On September 22, 2014, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen sent out a call for volunteers for an "unusual task."

"Fighting the Ebola virus affects us all. This emergency situation calls for a global answer, which Germany also needs to be a part of," the minister argued.

Bundesverteidigungsministerin Ursula von der Leyen

Defense Minister von der Leyen called for Ebola volunteers

Clinic without patients

A lot of people doubted at the time whether enough helpers could be found, especially since it was unclear at first whether the Bundeswehr would be able to fly infected helpers back to Germany. And yet, Funke remembers, a lot of applications arrived at the "Task Force Ebola" of the Koblenz medical service. "That was fascinating - there well over 5,000 applications from people who wanted to sign up."

Altogether around 150 soldiers were sent on the mission. Together with workers from the German Red Cross, they built an Ebola clinic according to the guidelines set out by the World Health Organization in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. But the opening kept being pushed back.

One reason was the disagreements with the Liberian Health Ministry. Then the wooden floors on which the sick beds were to be placed turned moldy. When the replacement concrete floors were finally dry, Germany was the last donor country to complete its Ebola treatment clinic.

Malaria not Ebola

"When we were finally able to open the installation on December 23, 2014, the wave of new infections had largely passed," Funke admitted. As a result, not a single Ebola patient has been treated in the German Ebola clinic. That led the German Red Cross and the Bundeswehr to change the concept: they turned the Ebola clinic into a special treatment center for other infectious diseases.

Because even if the major wave of infections had already passed in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, and 95 percent of all Ebola cases had been identified and isolated, the disease is still there, like a smoldering fire. "The last five percent, which this is still about, they often hide within other infectious diseases, like Malaria, Cholera or Meningitis."

A Bundeswehr and Red Cross station is meant to identify and treat such cases - Ebola cases are then transferred to special isolated clinics. The Red Cross is planning to hand over the clinic to Liberian authorities in March.

'Hysterical, uncoordinated, unprepared'

Freiwillige für Kampf gegen Ebola

Germany's clinic was retooled to treat other infectious diseases

The row over the operation has already broken out back in Berlin. The mission has not been successful, says Kordula Schulz-Asche, Green party health spokeswoman in the German Bundestag. The government, she said, reacted much too slowly to the Ebola outbreak.

"At the start of the epidemic we did almost nothing to support the affected countries, even though a lot of aid organizations sounded the alarm," the MP said. But then because of the rising Ebola numbers, she said that the government became hysterical and acted without coordination.

"Von der Leyen's appeal is an example of how ill-preparedly proposals were suddenly thrown onto the table," said Schulz-Asche. But it was good, she added, that the army had commissioned a special airplane to transport infectious patients which could be used in future disasters. Also the German air force had flown a vast quantity of aid equipment to affected areas. "From that point of view, there was a fairly positive result at the end of it."

The Green party put together an official question about the Ebola mission in the German parliament on February 3, which criticized the "government's weeks of incapacity." What had the government learned, the Green party wanted to know.

Funke said that the Bundeswehr was also concerned with learning from past mistakes. The doctor intends to spend the next seven days on the German island of Usedom. Not just to recover - also for a thorough debriefing of the mission in Monrovia.

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