In August, West Africa’s outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus exploded into Liberia’s capital, filling its hospitals beyond capacity and killing many of the city’s already-too-few doctors and nurses. With her government struggling and Liberians dying in Monrovia’s streets, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf placed urgent calls to both Democratic and Republican members of Congress, “who I awakened at night,” she recalled today.
“Senator Coons, do you remember those phone calls?” Sirleaf asked Senator Chris Coons of Delaware in a speech on Capitol Hill. She recited names of senators and representatives whom she awoke to plead for emergency help.
“From the White House, both houses of Congress, and both sides of the aisle, America responded,” Sirleaf said in a speech co-hosted by Coons and the U.S. Institute of Peace. “If I had the time, I would go door-to-door thanking all 535 members of Congress,” she said, for America’s “critical resources and partnership” in waging the biggest international fight against a disease outbreak in U.S. history.
The multi-billion-dollar U.S. mobilization against Ebola in West Africa has put Liberia on track to fully extinguish the outbreak, Sirleaf said. Six months after Congress and the White House responded to Sirleaf’s nighttime pleas, the U.S. intervention is a too-rare example of a foreign policy success that was built smoothly, across political parties and branches of government, said Coons and USIP President Nancy Lindborg.
Beating Ebola in Liberia
As U.S. troops and multinational teams of doctors and health workers streamed into Liberia last fall, Sirleaf ordered her country nearly shut down to slow the epidemic’s spread. She closed Liberia’s borders, schools, and markets. She banned traditional funerals and burials, ordering that bodies of the dead in Monrovia instead be cremated to halt infections.
With help from the United States and others, Liberia built 19 specialized Ebola Treatment Units. It trained burial teams and a network of 4,000 community workers and other “contact tracers” who track down people who may have been exposed to the virus to have them watched for symptoms, Sirleaf said. “Community by community, religious leaders, tribal chiefs, women and youth groups, businesses, civil society organizations, [and] political leaders across Liberia’s 15 counties fought back. And so today, we are reclaiming the future that was once threatened by this deadly disease.”
“Today, 13 out of 15 of our counties have reported no new cases in over 21 days,” Sirleaf said to applause. “We are down to 1 to 3 infections per week and are determined to ‘Get to Zero’ — to zero cases” — in a joint campaign with neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea, the other nations stricken by the outbreak, she said. The most active “hotspot” of the outbreak early this month was in and around Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.
A Bi-Partisan Success
“The Ebola response really demonstrates how important American global leadership is,” Lindborg said in an interview, including “the importance of Congress acting in a bipartisan manner to pass the spending bills to support the deployment to Liberia of the U.S. military and the Agency for International Development (USAID). The U.S. agencies joined Liberian teams to set up medical laboratories and the emergency treatment centers. Lindborg, who coordinated USAID’s Ebola response before moving to USIP this month, noted the bipartisan and “really unprecedented December emergency funding of $2.5 billion,” which was “absolutely critical” to the U.S. response.
Coons also celebrated what he said was an exception to Washington’s frequent political gridlock. “These days in the United States Senate, there are so few issues that are genuinely bipartisan. The response to Ebola and the United States relationship to Africa is one of the very few," he said in introducing Sirleaf to an audience that included congressional staffers and U.S. and Liberian diplomats and policy specialists.
The Ebola outbreak dramatized “that it absolutely matters to all of us when there are fragile states somewhere in the world” that create “holes in the net,” Lindborg said in an interview. “We live in too inter-connected of a world to say it doesn’t matter” that distant states are too fragile to manage conflicts or other problems, she said.
“I am here in Washington … to say thank you” for the American response, said Sirleaf, 76. She thanked President Obama for his deployment of “Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, to Liberia. This decision was perhaps the single most influential event that awakened the world to the scope and magnitude of the disease’s virulent spread in West Africa.”
Reversing Isolation and Crisis
"Liberia has only 218 medical doctors and 5,234 nurses to serve a population of 4.3 million.” – President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
The Ebola outbreak stalled what had been a decade of economic and social recovery from Liberia’s years of civil war, Sirleaf said. The disease “struck after ten years of … peace, during which we saw an average annual growth rate of 7 percent, experienced a 50 percent reduction in the infant mortality rate … increased life expectancy by 17 additional years … and perhaps more importantly, established a free and democratic society,” she said.
The deaths of health-care workers, notably at the start of the Ebola crisis, deepened a dire shortage, Sirleaf said. “Liberia has only 218 medical doctors and 5,234 nurses to serve a population of 4.3 million.”
Investors pulled out of Liberia when the disease erupted, Sirleaf noted, halting economic growth and throwing thousands of Liberians out of work. “Airlines stopped their commercial traffic, trade and travel routes were suspended, contractors folded tents and left, and Liberians experienced the chilling effect of stigmatization and abandonment,” Sirleaf told her listeners.
Now, she added, “As I speak, the curfew has ended, we have lifted it, children are back at school, our borders are open, our women marketeers are at work, our farmers are preparing for the oncoming planting season, and most importantly, our spirits are lifted. … Liberia is back in the business of development.”