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In November 2013, a month before the first Ebola death was recorded in West Africa, two U.S. congressmen stepped off a plane in Monrovia, Liberia, to visit a nation that would be ravaged by the disease within a year.
The lawmakers, Republican Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Democrat David Cicilline of Rhode Island, were in West Africa as part of a weeklong “Peacekeeping Learning Trip” funded by the United Nations Foundation to show them the U.N. mission and the impact of foreign aid in the region.
Trips like these, known as “codels” — D.C.-speak for a trip by a “congressional delegation” — have earned a bad rap after years of lawmakers using their privilege to enjoy lavish, lobbyist and taxpayer-sponsored trips around the world. But this trip was different, and the outbreak of Ebola that has killed more than 4,000 people in West Africa since their journey nearly a year ago has put Kinzinger and Cicilline in a unique position to discuss how to respond to the disease.
As a lawmaker from Rhode Island, Cecilline represents one of the largest Liberian communities in the country, and many of his constituents have family or friends affected by the disease across the Atlantic. Last week he organized a telebriefing with his Liberian constituents and officials from the Center for Disease Control and USAID to discuss response options. The trip, he said, has helped him better understand the concerns of his Liberian constituents and has helped in supporting a federal response abroad.
“Only until you see the condition of that country can you fully understand what the effect of civil war has been on Liberia and the complete absence of a health care system capable of meeting the health care needs of Liberians,” Cicilline told Yahoo News in an interview. “When I came back it allowed me to talk firsthand about what I saw, the progress that has been made and the challenges that still face Liberia. But for the Ebola outbreak, I think people are really anxious about what’s happening at home. So having been there, at least I can empathize with them and say, I understand your anxiety, and I understand that this is going to require serious international assistance not only from the United States but from the entire international community.”
Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves in 1821, is still recovering from a civil war that decimated public infrastructure, making it difficult for officials to combat the spread of disease. During their brief tour, Kinzinger and Cicilline visited Liberian government facilities, health centers, U.N. mission outposts, a prison and a local police agency. The U.N. has more than 7,000 personnel in Liberia, including military troops, observers, police and volunteers. The visit, both lawmakers said, helped shape their perspective and response to the Ebola scare in the U.S., where one man has died of the disease — in Dallas — and toward the federal government’s role in battling the disease in West Africa.
The growing fear of Ebola’s spread in the United States has led to calls from prominent politicians, including Republican Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, to cut off travel to and from West Africa. For now, such a move is not necessary, Kinzinger and Cicilline said, and could even be harmful.
“There’s a lot of people out trying to make this a political issue, and trying to get headlines by trying to say certain things. That’s what we’ve got to get away from,” Kinzinger told Yahoo News. “The first thing I want to do is calm everybody down. This has turned into a hysteria that at this point doesn’t seem well-founded. It’s a real issue — something we’ve got to be very concerned about — but I’m trying to push everybody back from this brink of panic. It’s not like the movie "Outbreak." I talk about my experience there. We talk about how we should have heavy screening of passengers there. There may be a day to restrict travel, but until that point I think we need to tamp down the panic a little bit.”
The spike in deaths this year also comes after recent calls to cancel or limit U.S. foreign aid in order to balance the federal budget. In fiscal year 2012, the U.S. government gave $125.7 million to Liberia, some of which has been used to pay for medical responses to the spreading disease. As part of a coordinated response, the U.S. military is currently working with the Liberian army to build Ebola treatment units, while the World Health Organization is training local health workers in Liberia and Sierra Leone to encourage patients to visit community care centers.
Kinzinger and Cicilline said the visit bolstered their support for U.S. foreign aid, which they said is crucial to fragile and recently war- and disease-torn nations like Liberia.
Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran who also visited Pakistan and Afghanistan during the same trip, added that the journey has also helped shape the way he approaches lawmaking, by putting a human face on legislation.
“When you talk about the numbers — tens of thousands infected now — I’m sure some of the people I met there now have Ebola or have died from it. I don’t know who, obviously, but that’s a reality that real people with real hopes, real dreams, real aspirations, and in some cases that’s cut short,” Kinzinger said. “When you go over there and you see that these are real people, it really just does have an impact. It really spikes your empathy to everyone.”