Ebola: how Swiss Humanitarian Aid is being mobilised on the outskirts of Bern

In Köniz, participants attend a meeting of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid's operations management for Ebola.
The Ebola operations management addresses the need to coordinate actions in cooperation with all Swiss organisations involved. © SDC

During major humanitarian crises, Swiss Humanitarian Aid sets up operations management teams that meet regularly to take stock of the situation and make operational decisions. In the case of the Ebola epidemic, the operations management meets in Köniz (Bern) with representatives of the other federal departments as well as NGO partners.

On this Monday in early October, thirty people gather in the strategy meeting room of Swiss Humanitarian Aid based at 77 Sägestrasse in Köniz on the outskirts of Bern. It is 13:28 p.m. There aren't enough chairs so a few are taken from a nearby office to make do. The one in charge of the Ebola operations management meetings kicks off the meeting without further ado. "Hello everyone. Thank you for coming. Shall we speak high German? Or should we speak French?"

From Geneva

This is because the participants at the crisis meeting come from all corners of Switzerland. This Monday, two representatives of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Switzerland have made the trip from Geneva. And a colleague from the Swiss Red Cross is there too. The Swiss Army is represented by a handful of officers in military uniform, and there are also two high officials from the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports (DDPS). For the FDFA, the delegate for Swiss Humanitarian Aid, Manual Bessler, recently returned from a mission to the Gaza Strip, is also present. Staff from Swiss Humanitarian Aid are surrounded by their colleagues from the SDC's South Cooperation Department, the Directorate of Political Affairs, the Crisis Management Centre and FDFA Security, among others. The Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) has also sent a representative.

The meeting begins with a review of the latest news from West Africa, Geneva and New York – the number of rising casualties, an overview of humanitarian efforts in Africa, recent communications from the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) created in mid-September... Some participants take notes. Others are already aware of the information circulating in emails among the specialists in this field.

Number of cases underestimated

The head of operations at MSF Switzerland (which employs 250 expat staff in the field) takes the floor. "We are not seeing any great improvements in the situation. To put it frankly, the situation is actually very worrying, especially as we believe that the number of cases being reported is underestimated by a wide margin. In practical terms, Guinea – being the most organised country – is having to take care of patients from Liberia and Sierra Leone, which is not without consequences..."

The representative of the Swiss Red Cross points out that "the health-care workers appear to be gradually developing a positive awareness of their role in relation to the epidemic". Manuel Bessler poses the following question: "From your point of view, what might be the practical consequences of the slow delivery of the aid provided by UNMEER, which is necessarily slow given the complexity of the task?" Like every donor country, Switzerland also needs a minimum amount of time to respond to the requests for equipment and personnel made by the United Nations.

Reply by MSF Switzerland: "The urgency is absolute. Each week that is lost means an exponential growth in the number of cases of infection. In addition to treating the sick, the disposal of corpses is inadequate. We are talking about 130 deaths per day in the capital Monrovia. Our organisation is responsible for taking about 30 bodies to the crematorium; the government handles another 30. The figures speak for themselves – we are not keeping up with the number of deaths."

Several million Swiss francs allocated

Swiss Humanitarian Aid has not waited for such alarming findings before deciding to act. Since the outbreak of the epidemic in March 2014, it has supported local authorities and partner organisations in West Africa; it has allocated millions of francs to combat the Ebola epidemic and to strengthen the health-care systems in the affected countries, and it has sent several specialists to Liberia to reinforce the SDC's programme office in Monrovia. The Ebola operations management was formed in late September in order to gather all the available data and coordinate all future actions in cooperation with the Swiss organisations involved.

After everyone around the table has had their say, it is time to recall the actions that have been taken or are being planned by Swiss Humanitarian Aid. It is also the moment to take strategic decisions. The responsible for the Ebola programme in Köniz explains that in addition to fighting the spread of the disease, Swiss Humanitarian Aid is also working to increase the population's access to basic healthcare, which has been undermined by collective panic over the Ebola outbreak. New projects to be carried out in collaboration with UNICEF and the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG) are being considered. We also learn that the platform established by the SDC to bring Swiss NGOs involved in fighting against Ebola together meets a real need.

Finally, the participants mention a recent initiative that could be talked about in the coming weeks – the possibility of the Swiss Army supporting UNMEER by providing helicopters, forklifts and generators (among other types of equipment that is needed). Emails are circulating between the VBS and Swiss Humanitarian Aid. The Federal Council will be consulted shortly. The officers in the audience may, if necessary, inform their superiors about the immensity of the needs identified this afternoon.

Swiss Army representatives listen attentively.
Whether in military or civilian clothing, staff of the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports (DDPS) attend the meeting to find out about the latest developments in the Ebola crisis. © SDC

Vaccine trials

14:35 p.m. Time is passing quickly. The head of the specialised medical group of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA), Dr Olivier Hagon, is keen to share two more pieces of information  – firstly, that two parallel trials of Ebola vaccines will be carried out on volunteers in early November by HUG and Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) and secondly, that the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) has shown a great interest in developing improved protective clothing for health-care workers, which would be lighter to wear.

Things are moving fast and there is much to keep track of...  For now, the meeting is adjourned. "Next meeting of the operations management is in a week – same time, same place" says the chairperson of the meeting. The room empties quickly.

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