From 2014 to 2016 the Ebola virus took over 11,000 lives in West Africa. Outside that region only 36 cases and 15 deaths were reported. As the COVID-19 virus cases began to rise and spread, the former President of Liberia, the epicenter of the Ebola pandemic, described what worked to contain and eradicate the disease.
In a letter addressed to the “citizens of the world” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf emphasized unity, both national and international, as crucial in curbing Ebola. On March 30, 2020 Sirleaf read her letter for the audience of BBC World News. She admitted that Liberia had made mistakes in its initial response, but “we self-corrected, and we did it together”. Liberia learned, according to its former President, that in fighting a pandemic “every person, in every nation, needs to do their part.”
Sirleaf, the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2011, attributed the defeat of Ebola to “a mass mobilization of resources led by the UN, the World Health Organization, and the US”. This year she was heartened by early signs of a collective response to the COVID public health emergency. “Watching from my home in Monrovia” she wrote in March, “what most encourages today, is the opening up of expertise and the fact that knowledge, scientific discovery, equipment, medicines and personnel are being shared”.
Tragically for the world and the U.S. in particular, Johnson Sirleaf’s initial optimism has not been supported by policies of the U.S. administration. With little to no endorsement from public health officials in other countries, the U.S. has gone its own way in the official pandemic response. On the day she read her letter to the world, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved use of hydroxychloroquine for treatment of COVID. That approval was rescinded June 15 two weeks after the announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from the World Health Organization (W.H.O.). The President of the Infectious Diseases Society of America commented on the decision, “We will not succeed against this pandemic, or any future outbreak, unless we stand together, share information and coordinate actions.”
The lack of a coordinated response within the U.S. has further divided the country in a time of national emergency. Ignoring the urgent recommendation of most public health officials and virus research findings, refusal to wear a face mask has become a political statement. States have been rebuked by the federal administration; rural and urban residents have been divided on mask wearing. In this context, the words of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf hailing Liberia’s unified response to Ebola seem haunting, “In Liberia, we emerged resilient from the Ebola epidemic, and stronger as a society, with health protocols in place that are enabling us to manage the Covid-19 disease.”
The complete text of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s letter to “the citizens of the world” follows:
March 30, 2020
Dear fellow citizens of the world,
On 19 October 2014, at the height of the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa, when 2,000 of my citizens had already perished and infections were growing exponentially, I wrote a letter to the world pleading for the mobilisation of personnel and resources.
I demanded a show of global unity to avert what we feared would be a worldwide pandemic.
Today, I take this opportunity to raise my voice in a message of solidarity.
Almost six years ago, I explained how Liberia’s post-conflict economy, and its fragile healthcare system, made it vulnerable to the rapid spread of disease, and I contended that how the world responded to the localised crisis in West Africa, would define our collective healthcare security.
I argued that an uncontrolled contagion, no matter where in the world, and no matter how localised, is a threat to all of humanity.
The world responded positively. And did so boldly.
A mass mobilization of resources led by the UN, the World Health Organization, and the US followed. We defeated it together. As a result, today there are effective experimental vaccines and antivirals thanks to the collaboration of the best scientific minds around the world.
In the face of the coronavirus outbreak, I am making a similar plea to my fellow world citizens. I do this with an acute awareness that while African nations have so far been spared the worst, it is only a matter of time until it batters the continent which is the least prepared to fight it.
We must act to slow down, break the chain of transmission, and flatten the curve.
It is clear that lapses were made in the initial response to the virus, from Asia to Europe, to the Americas.
Cues were missed. Time was wasted.
Information was hidden, minimised, and manipulated. Trust was broken.
Fear drove people to run, to hide, to hoard to protect their own, when the only solution is, and remains based in the community.
I know this. I made all of those missteps in 2014, and so did the world’s responders. But we self-corrected, and we did it together.
We are at a critical juncture as borders are closing around the world to slow the rate of transmission.
Let us not take the wrong cue from this. It does not mean that we are on our own, every country for themselves. On the contrary, it is the sign of a communal response, that border closures make a difference.
Watching from my home in Monrovia, what most encourages today, is the opening up of expertise and the fact that knowledge, scientific discovery, equipment, medicines and personnel are being shared.
It is happening within nations, and increasingly across international borders; an indispensable, albeit delayed reaction, that every person, in every nation, needs to do their part.
This realisation led to our turning point of disease control in West Africa.
I fervently believe this is the path we are all on.
I have full faith in the relentless spirit of the individual, a conviction that leaders emerge in times of crisis at every level of society, and that our religious and communal differences pale in comparison to our collective belief in the power of prayer, and our respective faith in God.
As we all hunker down in the next few weeks, I pray for the health and well-being of our global citizens, and I ask that everyone remember that our humanity now relies on the essential truth that a life well-lived is a life in the service to others.”
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President of Liberia 2004-2016