August 01, 2019

Menendez Raises Alarm over Trump Admin’s Failure to Adequately Respond to Ebola Outbreak Crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

WASHINGTON U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today marked the one year anniversary of the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by calling on the Senate to immediately take up and pass his bipartisan Ebola Eradication Act of 2019. Overwhelmingly approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June, the proposal would direct the Trump Administration to drop its delay, and use all available tools and resources to immediately bolster the U.S. government’s ability to fight the deadly outbreak. 

“We no longer have the luxury of half-hearted international engagement. We need a multifaceted, multi-sectoral, international response to get this under control.  We know all too well that infectious diseases have no borders. It’s one airplane flight away from coming to our borders. And that has happened before,” said Menendez. “I urge my colleagues to work with me in passing S.1340, the Ebola Eradication Act of 2019, as it is currently drafted and as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed it in June.  This is an opportunity to ultimately save lives. It's an opportunity to stop an epidemic. It's an opportunity to preserve our own interests by making sure Ebola doesn't come to the shores of the United States. It should be a no-brainer.”

The State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) currently ranks DRC as a Tier 3 country, which means its government does not meet the minimum standards to combat human trafficking and may be sanctioned, pursuant to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).  The Trump Administration has cited DRC’s Tier 3 ranking as a reason to limit its assistance, drastically impacting the United States’ ability to fund critical interventions in the DRC and other vulnerable countries to combat the Ebola outbreak notwithstanding the sanctions required by the TVPA. “Make no mistake, President Trump could have done this himself months ago,” added Menendez. “[The TVPA] was never intended to hurt the most vulnerable in society, or to be used as an excuse to ignore a deadly epidemic with international implications… we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles that serve no purpose and slow down our response even as the disease continues to kill more and more people.” 

On July 17th, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, having claimed the lives of over 1,800 people.  Today, there are press reports of a third confirmed case in the densely populated border city of Goma.  To date, mistrust of health care workers has been a significant impediment to efforts by the international community in containing this Ebola outbreak. Experts agree that a new strategy, one which identifies development activities that go beyond health, is needed to gain the trust of local communities, and pave the way to greater access for health care workers.  

Below are the Senator’s full remarks as delivered:

“I rise today to draw attention to the growing risk of an Ebola epidemic in central Africa, and urge this body to take up and pass S.1340, my bipartisan bill authorizing USAID to combat the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This legislation passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June– and it is now time for the full Senate to act.

On July 17, the World Health Organization declared this Ebola outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, with experts predicting the outbreak will last well into 2020. 

The Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, has been battling an Ebola outbreak for exactly one year as of today.

Despite the best efforts of the Congolese, the World Health Organization and international partners, this outbreak is now the second worst in history.

More than 1,800 people are dead and more than 2,600 confirmed and probable cases have been identified.

It took just over seven months to reach 1,000 cases of Ebola, but only two months to reach 2,000.  And according to the WHO, up to 25 percent of all infections may be going unreported.

The scope of the outbreak continues to grow. Just today press reports indicate that there is a third case in the city of Goma, home to over a million people.  Imagine the consequences of an unrestrained outbreak in a city of over a million people.

Mr. President, under the best of circumstances, it would be difficult—but not impossible—to control the outbreak. 

However, we’re not dealing with ideal circumstances.

Today’s Ebola outbreak is unfolding amid a noxious mix of political mistrust and overall insecurity.

Consider that Eastern Congo has been plagued for years by armed opposition groups and militias. 

Dozens of armed groups opposed to the government operate in the areas most affected by Ebola, periodically preventing health officials from reaching communities in need of treatment and prevention. 

Likewise, criminal gangs operating with near-impunity have made it dangerous for health care workers to travel to Ebola-affected villages without security.

To complicate things further, we’ve witnessed community resistance specifically to the Ebola response.

Long marginalized by the capital of the DRC, Kinshasa, communities in eastern Congo remain skeptical that the crisis is real.

They fear the government is using the disease as another tool of disenfranchising them, especially after the former government cancelled elections.

Some actors even oppose medical interventions and promote disinformation and conspiracy theories questioning the existence of the Ebola outbreak.

To date there have been more than 100 attacks on health facilities - severely hampering the response of the DRC and the international community.

Misinformation, mistrust of the government, and fear of violence at health centers has resulted in between 25 and 50 percent of new Ebola deaths taking place outside treatment facilities.

This means infectious patients are less likely to receive life-saving treatment and more likely to infect others.  

We no longer have the luxury of half-hearted international engagement. 

We need a multifaceted, multi-sectoral, international response to get this under control. 

We know all too well that infectious diseases have no borders. It’s one airplane flight away from coming to our borders. And that has happened before.

It is in our national and international interest to ensure the United States uses every resource available to get this outbreak under control.   

To date however, the White House response has not only been inadequate, but downright counterproductive. 

In early May, USAID developed a new strategy focusing on basic assistance for disenfranchised communities to help build trust and improve access for healthcare workers. 

This strategy would, for example, support health interventions for anyone who comes to a health care center in need of care, even if totally unrelated to Ebola.

USAID also proposed new programs to increase education, provide clean water and sanitation in communities, and improve conditions in Ebola-affected communities.

These programs were designed to build trust and promote resilience in at-risk communities so that health workers can better stop the spread of the disease. 

These were good ideas.

But instead of embracing them, the Administration has effectively tied its own hands in promoting a sensible, sustainable response to the Ebola crisis.

As we all know, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which I have been a champion of at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, worked with the former chairman, Bob Corker, who felt passionately about these issues, railed against the administration when they didn't put countries in tier 3, the most significant consequence under our law because they were playing politics with that country for other reasons and not observing the essence of the law, made sure that the TIP report was transparent and honest in its assessment.  So, I’m supportive of the harsh sanctions for countries that fail to adequately combat human trafficking.

As a tier 3 country under the law, the DRC is therefore severely restricted from receiving U.S. aid.

But let’s use some common sense here.

This legislation was never intended to hurt the most vulnerable in society, and or to be used as an excuse to ignore a deadly epidemic with international implications.

In fact, Congress foresaw the need for exceptions to sanctions in extraordinary cases in 22 U.S.C. Chapter 78, Section 4 of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

This language that I just cited allows the United States to waive sanctions and provide assistance when it is in our National Interest to do so. 

Indeed, the law specifically says:

“The President shall exercise the authority under section (4) when necessary to avoid significant adverse effects on vulnerable populations, including women and children.”

According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola virus disease has a 50 percent mortality rate.  And no one can deny its effects on vulnerable populations.

If the people of eastern Congo, including women and children are not vulnerable, then I don’t know who is!

Yet the White House has refused to exercise the waiver.

That’s why we need the Ebola Eradication Act.

This simple legislation directs the USAID Administrator to immediately provide assistance, including multi-sectoral, non-humanitarian, and non-trade related foreign assistance, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other vulnerable countries to effectively combat the Ebola outbreak notwithstanding the sanctions required by the TVPA.

Make no mistake, President Trump could have done this himself months ago. But as a Bloomberg editorial published today points out, President Trump has failed to respond with urgency.  As a result, needless delays and inaction have hampered our response.

In mid-June the Administration had granted exceptions for all Ebola related activities proposed under USAID’s new plan, but they have yet to be launched.

And to make matters worse, those exceptions were only granted for FY18 money. 

Finally, the exception is not a country waiver, creating loads of red tape for future activities related to combating Ebola.

In other words we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles that serve no purpose and slow down our response even as the disease continues to kill more and more people. 

Fortunately, the DRC and bordering countries, together with the World Health Organization, have lessened the overall impact by successfully vaccinating more than 120,000 people.

They’ve also administered experimental treatment regimens to over 300 people which, if caught in time, can save more lives.

But this is a case where in fact America can and must do more.  

While there is no magic wand that we can wave to change the security situation, we can certainly step up the U.S. response and our support for local and international efforts.

We have a moral obligation to help contain and combat this outbreak before it becomes an epidemic. 

Likewise we have an obligation to protect the safety and security of the American public.

Our goal must be to save lives and prevent the spread of Ebola before it stands a chance of reaching America’s shores.

Ultimately, we ignore the tragedy unfolding in the Congo at our own peril.

It is time for this body to act.

USAID Administrator Mark Green testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year and expressed strong support for this legislation as it is currently written.

I urge my colleagues to work with me in passing S.1340, the Ebola Eradication Act of 2019 as it is currently drafted and as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed it in June.

This is an opportunity to ultimately save lives. It is an opportunity, something we don't always get in this chamber, that we can actually save lives. It's an opportunity to stop an epidemic. It's an opportunity to preserve our own interests by making sure Ebola doesn't come to the shores of the United States. It should be a no-brainer.

And I hope we can work through the one objection I understand that exists with our colleague from Utah so that we can actually control the epidemic, save lives, and ultimately ensure our own interests.

With that, Mr. President, I yield the floor and observe the absence of a quorum.”

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