Ebola response through a logistician’s lens in Sierra Leone

Published: 28 October 2014 16:15 CET

Lisa Pattison, IFRC

Kitted out in space-age suits, gloves and goggles, the multinational Red Cross healthcare personnel at the Kenema Ebola treatment centre are among the protagonists in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone. Imagine, however, if there was no chlorine for disinfection, or protective equipment to shield them from the highly contagious virus. Efforts to combat Ebola would grind to an immediate halt. It is only through the work of a dedicated team of logisticians that this does not happen. With healthcare personnel and volunteers making up the frontline of the Red Cross response to the Ebola crisis, it is the logisticians who procure the glue that holds it together.

Among the first delegates deployed to Sierra Leone were logisticians from the Red Cross Emergency Response Unit (ERU). The ERU is a pool of skilled professionals assembled by different National Societies to enable the Red Cross to immediately react to an emergency situation. The unfolding Ebola emergency has forced all actors to step into a highly complex and challenging environment. “I’ve worked with the British Red Cross since 1996 and have been deployed globally, but this Ebola situation is unlike anything before. For all of us, it is a learning curve,” says John Punter, an ERU logistics delegate currently in Freetown.

One challenge is the suspension of some commercial flights, which can affect supply and delivery lines. In Sierra Leone, where cases of Ebola have rocketed, and consequently the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), it is daunting challenge. The safety and success of the operation depends on having a ready supply of equipment. However, estimating the amount of stock required has been difficult to predict as the situation is in a constant state of flux. Initially relying on previous deployment experience, the ERU logisticians can better evaluate the needs after several weeks on the ground and warehouse monitoring.

Currently hosting 20 patients, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Ebola treatment centre in Kenema uses 45 kilograms of chlorine for disinfection and 180 PPE suits a day. As the centre scales up to its full capacity of 60 beds, a logistician’s skill for estimation and procurement is critical. “The safety of our staff dealing with Ebola patients is of the upmost importance. If there is not the necessary equipment, we will not put them at risk,” says Susanne Klitgaard, the logistics ERU team leader, seconded by the Swiss Red Cross Society in Kenema. Despite the challenges, both ERU logisticians say that the opening of the treatment centre is a triumph.

The stigmatization of Ebola has not made a logistician’s job easy. It has been difficult to contract drivers to transport Ebola survivors for fear of contamination. After several attempts, Klitgaard changed her approach by building trust with the local drivers. “When they saw me in the Kenema centre interacting with the survivors, the drivers realized that they did not pose a danger.” In a situation rife with fear and uncertainty, it is essential to be adaptable.

The Kenema centre forms only one part of a logistician’s challenge. The Red Cross Ebola response in Sierra Leone further encompasses contact tracing, safe and dignified burials, psychosocial support and social mobilization. The ERU logisticians are responsible for overseeing the management of vehicles and ensuring there are enough vehicles for Red Cross personnel to be deployed over six districts. Through these activities, Red Cross volunteers will be able to access communities with life-saving information, and help break the chain of transmission.

A number of important lessons have been learned and will continue to be learned in this unique setting, especially as the Red Cross scales up its operation from one to six districts. However, one of the most prevalent constraints is finding logisticians to manage the situation, in particular during the upcoming Christmas season.

In the backdrop of multiple challenges, Punter says, “There are of course delays and constraints, but it is coming together. It is through joint efforts that we’ll be able to end Ebola in Sierra Leone.”

IFRC has revised its emergency appeal and is now seeking 41 million Swiss francs to ramp up its Ebola activities in Sierra Leone. It is one of 14 Ebola operations launched by the IFRC since the Ebola outbreak was first declared in Guinea in March 2014.