New infections have dropped to one-tenth of peak levels, children have resumed their studies, and there’s no longer a curfew in place. But there’s much work left to be done to quell the spread of Ebola in Liberia and prepare the West African country for future outbreaks, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently said.
During an interview with the Associated Press earlier this week, Sirleaf called on the international community to keep supporting Liberia as the country recovers from the Ebola epidemic and starts the work of strengthening its infrastructure that would allow it to take on future pandemics.
The West African head of state’s priorities include power to keep hospital equipment running, roads that allow the sick to access medical facilities, and clean water to prevent the spread of diseases. She plans to discuss these issues with President Barack Obama later this week during a visit to the White House.
“Our own limited resources have not enabled us to take them to the level where they could be in a preventive mode. And that’s the support we want,” Sirleaf said. “The great lesson in all these things, you know, whether you’re dealing with conflict or whether you’re dealing with disease, is to emphasize prevention rather than cure. It costs so much when you have to fix it.”
Since March 2014, more than 9,000 cases of Ebola have been confirmed in Liberia and more than 4,000 people have succumbed during what’s been called the largest outbreak on record since the discovery of the disease.
At the height of the epidemic, Liberian officials struggled to meet a growing demand for medical supplies — including specimen collection tubes, body bags, spray cans, and stationary gloves. Construction of a medical center in the capital city of Monrovia also stalled at one point. Amid doubts about the disease and panic among government officials, food markets shuttered and rates of Malaria soared.
By the end of last year, several countries had sent funds, medical personnel, and supplies to Liberia and other West African countries affected by Ebola, all of which eventually slowed down the rate of new infections. Scientists also reached a crucial milestone in their work to develop an Ebola vaccine, giving world leaders some hope that the end of the epidemic was in sight. In November, the Pentagon scaled back the size and number of Ebola treatment facilities and American troops in Liberia, building 10 units instead of 17. Each of the units had 50 beds — half the number President Obama initially pledged.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden, however, warned against letting up against the virus, stressing that epidemic could be endless: “That’s exactly the risk we face now. That Ebola will simmer along, become endemic and be a problem for Africa and the world, for years to come,” Frieden told NPR in December. “That is what I fear most.”
In March, Sirleaf and leaders of Guinea and Sierra Leone will present recovery plans before a group of partner countries and donors at a summit in Brussels. Oxfam, an international community-based organization that aims to find solutions to poverty across the world, called for a multi-million dollar post-Ebola Marshall Plan to rebuild the economy of the three countries.
While these plans show promise, income inequality and government corruption remain two important hurdles that Sirleaf and the other African head of states face in meeting their goals. Although Liberia has a growth rate of 8 percent, wealth has not trickled down to the majority of citizens, and questions linger about the manner in which the Liberian government handled relief funds.
Nonetheless, Nick Thompson, the chief executive of the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, said the Liberian government’s response to the outbreak shows its potential to take on crises independently. “It’s easy to look at the crisis in a sort of traditional, paternalistic development mindset. I don’t think that’s the full story. It was the countries themselves, helping themselves. That means the sense of accountability has risen up and that creates a challenge for governments, but that’s good,” Thompson told the Guardian this week.
In order for Liberia to keep up the momentum, the country requires the presence of trained medical professionals to combat future spread of the disease. At the height of the Ebola outbreak, fewer than 170 qualified doctors lived in the country, a crucial gap that resulted in thousands of deaths and a strike among frustrated doctors and nurses in October. Before the virus struck, experts said that post-war Liberia needed to increase the number of qualified medical personnel ten-fold to provide adequate health services. But Liberian doctors around the world — including Dr. James Sirleaf, the president’s son — have shown a reluctance to return to their homeland.
Sirleaf is ultimately hoping that the international community steps up to help insulate the region against another potentially deadly outbreak of Ebola. “Now’s not the time to be complacent or to pull out or to… stop the support. Now’s the time to really intensify it so we put in those proper preventive measures to make sure there’s no recurrence,” the Liberian leader said.