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Army commander offers ‘lessons learned’ from fighting Ebola, amid coronavirus crisis

Illustration of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19. (CDC/TNS)

The extremely deadly Ebola virus outbreak beginning in 2014 left the United States largely untouched, but its impacts to western Africa were devastating – more than 28,600 cases and 11,325 deaths.

Now, as the U.S. experiences its most disastrous health crisis in modern history, Lt. Col. Anthony Barbina, Army battalion commander for the New England Recruiting Battalion headquartered at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, is drawing parallels to his time fighting Ebola in Liberia.

Barbina, who now lives in York, was deployed as part of Operation United Assistance in 2014, where U.S. troops descended on Liberia to support the U.S. Agency for International Development-led mission to fight the spread of the Ebola virus in western Africa.

Operation United Assistance was made up of engineers, medical personnel, logisticians and others who built Ebola treatment units, trained health care workers and established a logistics infrastructure to support the ongoing activities.

Barbina said he recently started thinking about his “Ebola lessons learned” to share with the public amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I saw the suffering that was caused by Ebola, I saw the panic that was going through people,” Barbina said. “The disease was much less contagious, but it was a death wish.”

The rare virus, causing severe illness and often death, includes primary symptoms of fever, aches and pains, weakness and fatigue, gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting, stomach pain and unexplained hemorrhaging, bleeding or bruising.

Like the coronavirus, Ebola can often present like influenza, but more severe. Ebola, spread through mostly blood and sweat, is not as contagious at COVID-19, but more deadly.

Barbina said he saw the same impacts of fear in Liberia as he’s seeing today in the United States. During his first few weeks in Liberia, he watched “the whole society retract.”

It’s been previously reported that prior to the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic, Liberia had 50 doctors for its population of 4.3 million. By the time the crisis ended, the country had seen 10,675 cases and 4,809 deaths.

Barbina said approximately 36 countries were called in to augment Liberia’s health care system, as they desperately needed bed infrastructure and staff to treat patients. As a civil engineer, Barbina designed Ebola treatment units with the World Health Organization and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He also engaged closely with the local population. He explained the Liberian culture was such that when a family member died, other family members would lay with the body.

“The body was still so infectious after they died, that’s what was causing a lot of the transference of disease,” Barbina said, noting the Liberian government had to ramp up widespread communication, which he likened to promotion of today’s social distancing and hand-washing requirements.

Barbina said he has five lessons learned he’d like to share with the public as they navigate the coronavirus. First, “leadership matters.”

“You have to have leadership at the national, regional and local level,” he said. “You have to have it at the family level, too. Leadership and empowerment at all levels. Leaders have to be the calm within the storm.”

Barbina noted some local instances during the coronavirus emergency, like the mayor of Portland, Maine, taking early “preventative measures” ahead of many cities.

Barbina’s second lesson is “communicate clearly.” He urges governments, organizations and families to “cultivate 360 communication.”

“Unfortunately today, the communicating clearly is much harder because there are so many outlets out there that don’t corroborate their facts like they used to and so many social media venues,” he said. “Know your source of information, know that they are valid.”

Third, be prepared – individuals and organizations. “You gotta have your sustainable goods, your perishables restocked, a family plan,” Barbina said. “For organizations, you need to be trying to build up skill sets while this thing is in stride.”

Fourth, Barbina said, “be fast.”

“You have to set up quickly and do things quickly to maximize your productivity,” he said. An example he cited was sending his troops home March 16 to begin telework, something he was able to implement in just a few hours.

Lastly, Barbina said people need to “define reality.”

“In a crisis, you have to define your reality and your organization’s reality,” he said. “You have to know the players and know the game.”

Barbina said individuals need to know what they can control, and understand what they can’t. “Control the controllable,” he said.

The Western African Ebola virus epidemic was the most widespread outbreak of Ebola virus disease in history, but only eleven people were treated for the virus in the U.S. during the 2014-2016 time period.

Barbina said the U.S. is doing a “pretty good job” in its coronavirus response thus far. Having focused on robust emergency responses to hurricanes and major storms, the country has been able to take that crisis action planning and redirect, he said.

“The question all of us have to answer now is, ‘What does this look like six months from now, and a year from now?'”


© 2020 Portsmouth Herald