The presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone plan to skip President Barack Obama’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit next week to deal with the deadly Ebola virus in their countries, as a White House spokesman said the outbreak won’t affect the conference.
“At this point, there are no plans in place to alter the schedule in any way,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said today of the three days of meetings planned in Washington.
International health officials attribute 729 deaths to the virus as of July 27 in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today warned against non-essential travel to West Africa, and the World Health Organization is intensifying efforts to stem Ebola’s spread.
Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma has canceled his trip to Washington, according to the website of the West African nation’s presidential office. The medical aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres says Sierra Leone has become the epicenter of the worst outbreak of the disease on record.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has also dropped plans to attend the Washington event, has closed schools and markets, and quarantined some areas to contain the epidemic. Travel for government officials will be restricted to the vice president and ministers attending the Africa summit, she said in a speech broadcast nationwide yesterday.
The president of Guinea is still debating whether to attend the Washington conference, according to a State Department official who wasn’t authorized to comment publicly. The three countries will be represented by high-level delegations in any case, the official said.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said today in Washington that meetings on how to provide support in response to the Ebola crisis will be held during the Africa conference with staff from the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services.
“We tried to think of all the things that might happen that might interfere with a successful conference,” Thomas-Greenfield said in an appearance before the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group. “We didn’t come up with Ebola, but we’re going to have a successful conference in spite of Ebola.”
The WHO and the West Africa nations hit hardest by deadly Ebola will pump $100 million into programs against the disease that will deploy several hundred more health workers.
The outbreak “requires WHO and Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to take the response to a new level,” Margaret Chan, WHO’s director-general, said in a statement. It requires “increased resources, in-country medical expertise, regional preparedness and coordination.”
The CDC also promised increased aid. The agency plans to add 50 more health workers to its present staff in West Africa, Director Tom Frieden said on a call today. Stemming the tide of the outbreak could take three to six months, he said.
The three-day U.S.-Africa conference will bring heads of state, chief executive officers, lawmakers and top Obama administration officials together in Washington to discuss investment, regional stability and U.S. ties to the region, Thomas-Greenfield said in her remarks today.
“We want to see the summit lead to increased American investment in the continent and to more direct linkages between U.S. and African companies,” she said. “Hopefully we’re going see deals signed, and the more deals we see signed the more countries will understand what is required to get a deal, so it’s going to be good, it’s unique,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
Africa’s economic growth rates and its burgeoning middle class hold appeal for U.S. companies. The World Bank projects a 5.2 percent growth rate for sub-Saharan Africa this year, driven by rising investment in natural resources and infrastructure, and strong household spending.
Thomas-Greenfield said the conference is meant to build on a long-term -relationship. “This is not a renewal of our relationship with Africa, this is not a new relationship with Africa, it’s not a reflection of us determining that somehow we’ve been out of the game for several years,” she said.
The event is scheduled to begin on Aug. 4 and culminate in meetings led by Obama on Aug. 6.
The first day’s events will focus in part on the American Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides some African countries with trade preferences and duty-free entry for their goods.
On Aug. 5, a daylong U.S.-Africa Business Forum, hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Commerce Department, will give business and national leaders an opportunity to discuss investment and the continent’s economy. Bloomberg Philanthropies is led by Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.
Groups such as Human Rights Watch have said the three-day program isn’t focused enough on human-rights issues and criticized invitations to leaders who are seen as dictators.
Grant Harris, special assistant to Obama and senior director for African affairs, said the administration has invited all African leaders who are in good standing with the African Union and with the U.S.
“Our philosophy is to engage and even where we profoundly disagree on an issue, to make our views known and to be advancing U.S. interest in that manner,” Harris said on a conference call with reporters.