KOREA - The South Korean government said Monday it plans to send off a group of military and health officials to West Africa in early November to join the global efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak amid deepening concerns over whether the safety measures will be adequate to guard against possible infection.
Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul presided over an intra-agency meeting to discuss plans to provide medical workers and related supplies, which was attended by senior officials from the foreign, health and defence ministries and the Korea International Cooperation Agency, a state-run grant aid institution.
The advance team, to be made up of six to seven officials from the three ministries, will leave for Liberia or Sierra Leone, or both, as early as in two weeks to examine the situation there and prepare for the main forces to arrive shortly. The length of their stay is yet to be decided but will "not be a very long time," said Oh Young-ju, director-general for development cooperation at the Foreign Ministry.
"As is the case for any emergency relief work overseas … the advance crew will be tasked with looking in general into the working conditions in the field, what kind of preparations need to be made, and what kind of partnerships we should forge with the agencies and countries out there," Oh said at a news conference.
"With the safety of our workers being the No.1 priority, we will carry out the plan after the advance crew's thorough review and inspection."
The ministries will begin recruiting this week members of the main squad on a voluntary basis. The scale and other details of the mission are to be nailed down later on, she noted, but the number of applicants appears to be a key determining factor.
The team, which will be the first of its kind to respond to an overseas epidemic, will also include military surgeons and nurse officers and will operate on a rotating basis. The Defence Ministry plans separately to send three liaison officers to the US Africa Command in Germany, according to Brig. Gen. Park Chul-kyun, director-general for international policy.
Wary of mounting safety concerns, the Ministry of Health and Welfare is considering isolating the participants after their return for a while given the latent period.
"They could be kept in isolation for a maximum of 21 days in the countries where they worked or somewhere else. We will pore over reasonable and appropriate measures," said Kwon Joon-wook, director-general for public health policy.
The session came days after President Park Geun-hye unveiled her plans for forming the Korea Disaster Relief Team while participating in the Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan.
With the decision, Korea is joining a growing list of countries that have promised manpower support for the fight. They include the US, the UK, China, Germany, Spain, Japan, France, Norway, Canada, Russia, Denmark, Italy and Cuba.
Among other contributors are multinational agencies and humanitarian groups such as the World Health Organisation, the Africa Union, Doctors without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Seoul has been seeking to boost its commitment to help meet soaring demand for medical workers, protective gear and financial assistance for the campaign, while elevating its national prestige as a middle power.
The country has so far pledged $5.6 million (S$7.12 million) to help rein in the pandemic through the UN, the WHO, UNICEF and other channels.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said last week that it had raised only $377 million of the $1 billion required for the global battle, while another $217 million had been pledged.
Its list of "priority in-kind requirements" for the Ebola response includes air lifts, maritime transport, fuel, vehicles, mobile laboratory facilities and regular medical clinics, emergency evacuation capabilities, 3.3 million pieces of high-quality personal protective equipment and treatment centers.
As of Oct. 14, 4,555 people had died from the deadly virus out of a total of 9,216 cases registered in seven countries, according to the WHO. Most of them hailed from three West African nations at the centre of the outbreak ― Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Fears continue to grow over additional deaths, with the Geneva-based health agency warning that up to 10,000 new cases could occur within two months.