Liberia’s Ebola Hero Tolbert Nyenswah Resigns


English-born playwright William Shakespeare reasoned:  ‘Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.’

Report by Ekena Wesley

Indeed a self-assuring and inspiring epitome that would unmistakably garner a compelling need to rise to the occasion amid obtaining circumstances. In the words of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf; “Liberia was attacked by an unknown and common enemy that exposed the vulnerabilities of our health system.”

As a nation, technically challenged in terms of infrastructure and trained manpower; although steadily recovering from the trappings of more than a decade of civil conflict, the Ebola outbreak hit the core of the national fabric. Bewilderment settled in, hopelessness rained, cultural nuances became compounded, and worse still acceptance seemed common place amongst a population consumed by perplexity and trepidation.

Initially, as the leadership faced the outbreak head-on, it appeared wanting amid a looming sense of desperation; nevertheless the gravity, scale and magnitude of the death toll turned unimaginable to say the least. The entire governmental structure was inundated with obfuscation; there were calls for the administration to resign to give way for the setting up of an Interim Government. That preposterous assertion came to naught! 

When it had finally dawn of the government in light of the mounting pressure from at home and abroad; the administration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf gallantly rose to the challenge. An original snail-paced somewhat non-result performing strategy was immediately overhauled. A two-prong approach was adopted. Then Minister of Health, Dr. Bernice Dahn under the Sirleaf era was placed directly in charge health care delivery (curative services) while Assistant Minister for Preventive Services, Cllr. Tolbert Nyenswah was positioned to lead the Incident Management System (IMS).

Like popular French revered nationalist, Napoleon Bonaparte who stood towering when his country needed him the most; Liberian-born Tolbert Nyenswah reckoned the need to achieve greatness. His country was bleeding given the upsurge of an outbreak of catastrophic proportions. Liberians awoke to the dawn of deaths reported in nearly every nook and corny of a country that had been beleaguered by a tragic and life-threatening calamity. 

Health Centers were uncharacteristically turning back patients with treatable curative diseases – many of whom had to die as the euphoria of the Ebola virus spread veraciously amid the attendant consequences.

Between the occasioning havoc, fear and chilling effects of Ebola on the one hand and the likelihood of hastily joining the death toll on the other – stood the man Tolbert Nyenswah. In the context of his humanness although somewhat gripped by fear in his line of duty, he set his eyes across the nation with valor unpretending; realizing that a probability of missteps would amount to immeasurable but further disastrous consequences. In spite of the chilling moments, the IMS and auxiliary mechanisms stood the test of time as Liberians looked out for help.  

And then the much needed help finally arrived not necessarily as the ultimate ‘saving grace’ but showed up after the relevant structures were entrenched. Help from outside became what the British called ‘grace to the mill’; for it became a buttress to the overall fight. Social mobilization chain, community ownership and containment of the Ebola outbreak. While President Sirleaf arguably remained at the helm of political authority – the face of ‘Ebola Hero’  Tolbert Nyenswah became the most camera snapped flash-beaming figure on the lenses of local and international journalists who had descended on Liberian soil to report the Ebola outbreak.

Little known Tolbert Nyenswah to whom a demanding task was ascribed became an unveiling icon along regional and international public health frontiers. If objective historians are writing the story of one of the most devastating outbreaks in human history particularly West Africa, the name Tolbert Nyenswah will go down while their ink trickle as one having foresight; a quite thoughtful but resilient individual, one who would seek all sides to every question and constantly seeks the truth; indeed a man of strength, temper with compassion and above all, a selfless patriot and indefatigable character as aptly described a public discourse organized by the Center for Strategic & International Studies at Georgetown University, D.C. 

Liberia has survived wars, managed crisis of unimaginable dimensions and faced some of the harshest realities to becloud humankind. Like the soldier on the battlefield; the war on Ebola is over. Brave, strong and intelligent Ebola war General, Tolbert Nyenswah has selected to call it quit barely half a decade after Liberia won the battle against the pandemic. Whatever went into such unexpected determination – Liberia and Liberians alike will remember Tolbert Nyenswah as that true hero who sacrificed for his country to obliterate the deadly Ebola.

As a patriot, looking into the future, he used every strategic opportunity, seized the moment at every forum, or discourse to chart that critical course and advance a scientific argument geared towards a Post-Ebola nation characterized by an all-encompassing resilient health care system capable of instantaneously responding to any outbreak. Modelled after the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), National Public Health Institution of Liberia (NPHIL) a brainchild of Tolbert Nyenswah will not just miss a Director General but a mentor, inspiration, an accessible and approachable Director of borderless interaction. Let us not be deceived that donors, at their choosing will provide sustained intervention based on credibility and integrity. 

This untimely exit could be a sad day for public health in Liberia just when Ebola is gone although its re-emergence cannot be ruled out let alone other infectious diseases. Liberia’s Ebola Hero’s career in the health sector started as far back as 1999 from a Massager, Director, Assistant Minister, Deputy Minister. In a record breaking dramatic development, malaria, on his watch was the first disease that was tackled reducing the prevalence in children from 66% in 2005 to 32% in 2011. 

Irrefutably, Tolbert Nyenswah along with a hardworking and determined team must has endeavoured to build from ZERO; anchored tremendous success by inspiring and motivating a team of young, industrious and enterprising public health specialists of diverse preoccupations. Meanwhile, all such incredible dream on the verge of fruition – could soon fizzle away. In the last couple of months, the National Public Health Institute with support from partners stood firm in combating flare-ups of Ebola, Monkey-pox, Lassa fever, meningitis, yellow fever, increasing cases of measles as well as other emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Moving forward, potential threat to public health could be looming when the appropriate entity created by law cannot be given the needed resources and logistic to fulfil its mandate. 

Thanks to the Americans and USG institutions, WHO, the World Bank, and all partners who have stood solidly behind NPHIL in detecting and preventing threats to public health across the country. Today, kind courtesy of the Americans, a new US$20 million state of the art headquarters is poised on the horizons with no cost to the Liberian government.

Tolbert Nyenswah must have made up his mind to call it quit as the institution beacons in its fast-growing infancy, but the future of this critical scientific cum technically-incensed research organization will remain a matter we can equate to the reckoning of the day of the jackals provided the ideas and ideas of its forebears live on. Tolbert Nyenswah will be missed by all and sundry as an iconic revolutionary in the history public health in Liberia. Tolbert Nyenswah is a success story and an engrained public health warrior of the 21st century. We say to Tolbert, as the world out there becomes a likely feat in which the sky will become the limit – we urge such a national hero to make Liberia proud again for you are symbolically that true legacy that dismantled Ebola.