Liberian Leader Concedes Errors In Response To Ebola
March 12, 2015
The president of Liberia acknowledged on Wednesday that she had erred in ordering a tough security crackdown at the height of the Ebola crisis last year, describing the deadly virus as an "unknown enemy" that had frightened her.
The president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel peace laureate, said that in hindsight, her deployments of troops and police officers to seal off a vast neighborhood in her nation's capital — which set off skirmishes with residents, fueled distrust of the government and led to the death of a teenager — had been counterproductive.
"It did not take long to know that did not work," she said in an interview with the The New York Times Editorial Board. "It created more tension in the society."
Ms. Johnson Sirleaf's remarks amounted to an unusually frank self-criticism of her early reactions to the Ebola crisis.
"We didn't know what we were dealing with," she said. "It was an unknown enemy. People attributed it to witchcraft. We did not know what to do. We were all frightened. I was personally frightened."
The disease has declined drastically in Liberia over the past few months partly because of a highly effective public health awareness campaign undertaken by Ms. Johnson Sirleaf's government and Liberians themselves. Donor nations and international aid groups have also poured enormous amounts of assistance into the country.
Last week, Liberia's last Ebola patient was discharged from a hospital in Monrovia, the capital, where corpses littered the streets only months ago. The discharge brought to zero the number of known cases in the country.
The end of reported cases in Liberia has come much more quickly than in its two neighbors still battling the virus, Guinea and Sierra Leone. But Liberia suffered an intense epidemic last year and accounts for a little more than 40 percent of the nearly 10,000 total deaths from the outbreak, according to World Health Organization data.
In the early stages of the outbreak, Ms. Johnson Sirleaf said, many officials and aid groups were slow to react, and not just in Liberia, a country of 4.2 million. Her government's response, she said, had been to seek immediate ways to stop the transmission of the virus, which is highly contagious, particularly in victims who have just died.
"We went into a security approach," she said. "We put the army there. We put the security people there. We closed the borders."
The public's reaction — angry, confused, mistrustful — quickly led to a different approach.
"That something different was to engage our communities," she said. "Now I know that people's ownership, community participation, works better in a case like this. I think that experience will stay with us."
Well before the Ebola outbreak, mistrust of authority had been ingrained in Liberia, where many years of war, upheaval and corruption predated the ascendance of Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, 76, a women's rights activist who helped restore stability to the nation.
Elected in 2005, she shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work in Liberia, and under her tenure conditions improved sharply.
"We came a long way before Ebola hit," she said. "We know we had a long way to go. And Ebola came in and gave us a whole new challenge."
A basic part of that challenge, she said, is the stunning paucity of doctors in the country, even before the Ebola outbreak, which killed at least 180 Liberian doctors, nurses and other health care workers.
"Most Liberian doctors are here in this country," she said, referring to the United States. "They don't feel comfortable to move back."
Source: By Rick Gladstone - New York Times