Liberia: Ex-President Sirleaf Says Honesty, Credibility; Exemplary Leadership Key to Defeating Covid-19

A PIECE OF ADVICE FROM EJS: “Be able to be honest with the population- reliable and credible information as much as possible; evidence based on data that one can speak from local authorities from health facilities or NGOs reporting. You don’t make policies that will understate the severity of the problem”.

Monrovia – Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has underscored the need for leaders in Liberia and other countries hit by the deadly Coronavirus across the African continent and the world at large to exhibit exemplary leadership in a bid to defeat the killer virus.

According to her, leaders of countries experiencing the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic must ensure that they display prototypical leadership at both the political and capital levels to guarantee the safety of their nations and its peoples.

Madam Sirleaf made these comments when she appeared on the ‘Faces on Africa’ program organized by the African Public Health Network (APHN) at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the United States of America.

Reflecting on Ebola

The forum was established for the exchange of ideas, information and experiences, as well as training and collaboration relative to public health issues which remains a special concern to countries and citizens in Africa.

Madam Sirleaf was Invited to provide overview of Liberia’s experience, challenges and successes relative to the Ebola epidemic which broke out in the country in 2014, and to provide a brief insight on Covid-19 and challenges the region would encounter that would require international assistance.

“Be able to be honest with the population- reliable and credible information as much as possible; evidence based on data that one can speak from local authorities from health facilities or NGOs reporting. You don’t make policies that will understate the severity of the problem”.

Former President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Former Deputy Public of Health and the Head of the Incident Management System, Dr. Tolbert Nyenswah, and Liberian Bio-medical Research Scientist, Dr. Christopher Dugbeh Nyan, who invented the rapid test known as the Nyan Test served as moderators on the program during the appearance of the ex-Liberian leader.

Madam Sirleaf said citizens would not be adequately convinced if false information are provided by leaders and others reporting on Covid-19.

Don’t Understate Severity of Problem

“Covid-19 is different. Ebola was transmitted from person to person, but the Covid-19 can be transmitted in so many ways that I still find it difficult to understand. When it comes to how one treats a disease of this kind-I think first of all- an engaged exemplary leadership at both the political and capital level-If you don’t have that to guide the whole process, it is difficult to convince the public to follow whatever policies and measures are given”.

“Be able to be honest with the population- reliable and credible information as much as possible; evidence based on data that one can speak from local authorities from health facilities or NGOs reporting. You don’t make policies that will understate the severity of the problem”.

She noted that in the case of Covid-19, capacity enhancement is necessary because Liberia faces enormous difficulties due to the lack of professionals in the health system, and limitations in other sectors, including road connectivity.

She added that doctors, specialists, particularly health care workers must be trained and provided better support, wages and equipment to adequately respond to affected persons while carrying on their assigned tasks and responsibilities.

Isolation and Lockdown

Leaders of many countries see the imposition of a lockdown as one of the best means of containing the spread of the Coronavirus across their respective countries.

But lockdown in most African countries have not been satisfactorily working due to the numerous challenges confronting those citizens raging from lack of food, proper shelter, stable and affordable electricity, lack of access to pipe borne water, among others.

According to the ex-Liberian President, lockdown and isolation currently taking place under the Covid-19 era is not producing the best results for Liberia and other countries across the African continent.

She named cooperation, coordination, exchange of information, and the recognition that Covid-19 is worldwide, instead of being only among few countries in the region, as some of the means to contain the spread of the virus.

Madam Sirleaf added that financial resources must be expended through budgetary allocations to institutions working to minimize deficiencies in the water and sanitation sector, nutritional and other sectors that can help prevent infectious diseases, noting that, “prevention is better than cure”.

“We believe the Ebola experience is going to lead to a global effort to support health care systems in a much stronger way; that resources should now be allocated not only for developed countries which will be able to enhance their systems very quickly-we also need to do it in the poor countries because these diseases do run across borders as per our experience”.

She further stressed the need for regional cooperation for research among countries.

Madam Sirleaf pointed out that the Coronavirus pandemic has shown the world the need for collaboration and coordination.

She maintained that the progresses of developed countries remain at risk and expose to the outbreak of diseases if collaboration and coordination between countries, regardless of status, are not prioritized.

 “The Covid-19 tells us that we’re facing a place where in this interdependent world, unless we work together, approach alliances, cooperation and coordination, we run the risk of even those that are more developed and better of the region-will find their own progress undermined by those that are left behind”.

“While there will be differences in countries-we know that; and while we know there are differences in leadership. But we also know that there’s enough effort in good will to be able to reach beyond to ensure that we have a common objective or goal that we can all work towards”.

Characterized by Confusion

The outbreak of the deadly Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Liberia took away the lives of approximately 5000 citizens, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Madam Sirleaf recalled that the outbreak of the disease in Liberia was characterized by confusion and missteps initially in the post-conflict nation.

She pointed out that one of her government’s first approaches towards the fight against Ebola did not yield to fruition, but created death and confusion in various quarters of the Liberian society.

“We restrained movements to be able to keep everyone in a control environment where we could get more information and find the means how we can provide relief to them and solve this problem. But that did not work; clearly we couldn’t stop the movement of people across internal borders and that created much more confusion because they felt that their movements were being constrained and thereby their safety was being compromised.

“We had to subsequently do it differently. As a President, I formed a very strong technical team comprising public health officials; they became to organize meetings to inform our colleagues in other areas-our Legislature, Judicial system, civil society-holding meetings. We had to gather as much information”.

According to her, the Incident Management Team which was headed by Dr. Tolbert Nyenswah, took full charge of gathering information, engaged into regular and reliable reporting based upon evidence and data gathered around the country from health care workers Non-Governmental Organizations and others who have been partnering with government over the years.

She disclosed that numerous regular meetings were held with stakeholders, including the National Legislature and the judicial branch of government to build confidence and set the basis for a clear communication approach to the public under her overall political supervision.

Negative approach abolished

Madam Sirleaf indicated that the previous approach of restricting the movements of citizens was discontinued by her administration during the Ebola crisis.

According to her, the abolition of the lockdown process yielded fruitful results. 

“We also known we had to change course. The negative approach we adopted could not be continued because it caused some serious problems-violence that led to death and hurt; and one of the things we had to do is just to let people move around”

“What we did was to put our communities in charge of their lives and their livelihoods. In that, we’ve getting to community leaders and workers, keeping them inform, training them as much as possible to understand the virus, and the preventive measures that need to be taken”.

Madam Sirleaf furthered: “We know we had to reach out for partnership; we did not have the resources, technical or financial to be able to fight this virus on our own. The first person I reached to was the United States, through President Obama. He was very gracious in receiving my call and in responding immediately by being able to send a team over. CDC has already been there to join WHO in doing continuing assessment of where the virus was and what needed to be down”.

She pointed out that hospitals in the country were not functional and as such, the NIH came in and setup a hospital to treat medical workers, doctors and nurses. 

She attributed the situation to the deaths of numerous health care workers, nurses and doctors during the peak of the Ebola virus outbreak in Liberia.

Madam Sirleaf added that many people were “too afraid to go to hospitals that were not even operating because they didn’t have the means to operate; they didn’t have the personnel care and the type of equipment to be able to treat them”.

She maintained that as a result of this, many persons died of different “causes rather from Ebola”.

Madam Sirleaf, however, named the lack of public confidence as one of the greatest challenges of her government’s efforts in combating Ebola in Liberia.

She appreciated the efforts of the United States government, through the Center for Disease Control (CDC), African Union, the United Nations, the Liberian media and others for partnering with her administration to eradicate the disease from the country.

Madam Sirleaf expressed delight over the establishment of the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL) during her administration to combat against the outbreak and spread of diseases in the country.

“Leaders should lead by examples. I went to clinics and hospitals in rural areas myself to allay fears in healthcare workers. I took supplies to them and encouraged them”

 “I’m glad that at the end of the day when Ebola was ending, our people appreciated some of the measures we took; recognizing their own challenge or leadership-putting them in charge of some of the hard decisions we had to take”.