Explaining to anguished parents why they could not hold their dead children and kiss them one last time before putting them in the ground was one of many tough challenges humanitarian aid workers faced during the recent Ebola crisis in Liberia — the country hardest hit by the deadly virus.
Former U.S. Marine Ben Hemingway ’01, who led the U.S. response to Ebola in the West African nation, is still haunted by such memories.
“The challenge of the Ebola response was more to protect the living than heal the sick,” Hemingway said. “There was very little you could do for the sick early on.”
Persuading people to relinquish cherished traditions to conduct life-saving safe burials was a key step in reducing infection.
“As in the West, Liberians wash the bodies of their deceased and prepare them for open casket funerals,” Hemingway said. “People come and touch the diseased body, and this was where much of the propagation of the virus occurred, particularly in the early days.”
As regional adviser for East Asia/Pacific at the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, Hemingway has carved out a career as one of the government’s most experienced disaster response experts.
Hemingway credits the broad-based liberal arts education he received as an international relations major at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences with giving him the skills to succeed in his career.
My experience at USC Dornsife taught me how to navigate completely different worlds and vocabularies.
“My experience at USC Dornsife taught me how to navigate completely different worlds and vocabularies and gave me a firm foundation to bring together experts from different backgrounds to address a common challenge,” he said.
Meeting multiple challenges
Implementing safe burials was one among many challenges Hemingway faced during a recent two-month rotation in Liberia as second in command of the Disaster Assistance Response Team for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the federal agency coordinating the U.S. response to Ebola in Liberia. Another was creating sufficient numbers of treatment centers.
Heading the response team was particularly challenging, Hemingway said, because it was the first time the world had to confront an Ebola outbreak of this scale and complexity, not only in West Africa, but in an urban environment where there is already a striking lack of health care.
“There had been small outbreaks in the past, but they typically burned themselves out because the disease is so virulent that people tended to die before they could spread it very far,” he said. “But in an urban setting, we saw logarithmic levels of reproduction this summer, suggesting it would be very difficult to bring the outbreak under control — if indeed it even was possible to bring it under control.
When we went into Liberia there was no rulebook, there was no playbook.
“When we went into Liberia there was no rulebook, there was no playbook. We had to bring together all this disparate technical expertise and come up with not only a medical plan to address the outbreak, but we had to incorporate policy changes, conduct public outreach and address security issues. And we had to do it fast.”
Have plane, will travel
Based in Thailand, where he lives with his two sons, Hemingway is among a small, elite cadre of fewer than 50 operatives who respond to worldwide disasters on behalf of the U.S. government.
“Basically, I’ve worked on just about everything that’s made front-page news over the past 10 to 15 years from Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Darfur and Congo,” he said.
In 2013, Hemingway led the response to Typhoon Haiyan, in which 7,000 people died in the Philippines. Nearly a year to the day later, in early December, he found himself responding to another storm, Typhoon Hagupit, in that corner of the world. Throughout his area of responsibility in the Asia Pacific region, he responds to an average of 12 to 15 small and medium scale disasters each year.
He also troubleshoots worldwide.
“We serve where we are called on to serve, whether it’s insurgency in Iraq, an Ebola outbreak in Liberia or civil unrest in the Central African Republic,” Hemingway said. “It’s like being a firefighter, things pop up and we are called on to deal with them.”