This article was originally published to mark the launch of Ebola Deeply, an independent digital media project working to improve the state of information around a global crisis.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia fielded questions over email, sharing her thoughts on an outbreak that has killed more than 2,300 people in her country since March.
ED: How is the Ebola outbreak taking a toll on your people – especially on women and girls?
EJS: Ebola has been a massive shock to our system – the disease was unknown in West Africa, we had no way of preparing, and precious few resources to tackle it once we knew what we faced.
We have had to change our day-to-day life, from simple things like not shaking hands when we greet each other to how we mourn and bury our dead.
For women and girls there are two major problems I would highlight in particular. First, maternity care: one of the things we were most proud of over the last decade was reducing infant mortality and improving maternal care. But in a country with just 45 doctors and a population of 4.5 million, we have had to divert every spare resource to fighting Ebola. That is bound to have a severe impact on that record.
Secondly, education: we have striven to increase the number of girls in school with some success, but one of the key things we have had to do is close our schools to stop the spread of the disease. The longer the outbreak continues, the longer Liberia’s boys and girls will go without education.
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ED: What does the world need to know about the Ebola crisis that isn’t being heard or understood?
EJS: Liberia only escaped 14 years of brutal civil war a decade ago – when it ended, we had lost some 90% of our GDP. But in the last 11 years, we had started to get back on our feet, we’d attracted $16 billion of foreign investment, we were rebuilding our infrastructure and tackling the entrenched poverty that is the root cause of so many of our problems.
The tragedy of the Ebola outbreak is that it puts all that progress at risk. With investment already drying up, we’ve had to reduce our growth forecast, and now prices are rising and government revenue is down. If we don’t stop it now, then there’s a real danger that the disease will ravage the country and set us back where we started.
ED: What more needs to happen, by way of an international response?
EJS: We are very grateful that the international community is at last responding, but it is still not enough. In a post-conflict society where we are rebuilding government institutions, we can’t fight Ebola alone.
A month ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that the cost of defeating Ebola could be $600 million. That may not seem much to the West, but that is Liberia’s entire annual budget. Now the WHO is estimating that in the worst-case scenario, 1.4 million West Africans could be infected by January. In that case, there would be no way that it would be contained in Africa – it would become a global epidemic. The world has to recognise that this is everyone’s fight – Liberia and West Africa are only the frontline.