Liberia’s Ebola Epidemic: Did the Government Fall Asleep at the Wheel?

Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president has led for nearly a decade now, but it took the Ebola virus epidemic to reveal how fragile, how unprepared, and how vulnerable her leadership has left the Liberian people. In all of those years, there has been no adequate health services, no serious educational system, no adequate roads in most parts of the country, no electricity or water to most of Monrovia, and all of this despite international aid, foreign investment and new trade contracts. Without adequate schools, hospitals, roads, electricity or water to metropolitan Monrovia, how can Liberia protect its citizens, monitor infected persons, quarantine suspected cases or even educate the people about the catastrophic dangers of the virus? If the lack of these necessary resources were the only problem, then many could have been spared. But the government itself seemed to be asleep in the wake of the Ebola outbreak; like its citizens who attacked the first aid workers in Lofa County, the government was in denial, taking no serious action when the virus first surfaced in Lofa in early March. The leadership, mostly based in Monrovia, went on as usual while residents and health care workers alike died in Lofa in March, in April, May, June, and in most of July. Officials, including President Sirleaf, continued to travel for conferences abroad as if this deadly virus was something to ignore. Until the July 25th death of an Ebola infected government employee, Patrick Sawyer, and until two American aid workers, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol became ill, the Liberian government basically ignored a virus that would be the test of all of its strengths and weaknesses, threaten the nation’s stability, and erode all that has been achieved since the end of the civil war.

The reason a nation has leaders is because we need direction at all times, in war, in peace, and during calamities such as the Ebola epidemic. When good leaders lead, people follow. For decades, and most importantly, since the end of the civil war, the Liberian people have never been convinced that the nation’s leaders care about their welfare. I have traveled back and forth to Liberia for research in the last six years, and during my 2013 sabbatical, I lived in Monrovia for nearly five months. During that visit, I became convinced that the Liberian people were among the most vulnerable on earth. I was devastated by the high number of people dying from the sheer lack of basic health care. I helped bury at least five of my close relatives, all of whom died of preventable diseases. Outside of my own family, Monrovia’s residents were dying of malaria, typhoid fever, diabetes, high blood pressure, and many other common illnesses. Even prominent government officials died of controllable and preventable diseases. The hospitals and medical facilities were in disrepair, and the lack of medical supplies and medicines was extreme. All of these problems were evidence that the government could not handle any serious medical challenge. Maybe this explains why nothing was done when Ebola entered Liberia from Guinea. Could this lack of efficient leadership and the seeming disinterest of the government be the engine driving popular discontent, distrust, and denial as the Liberian people wrestle with this deadly virus? Is this ineptitude fueling the epidemic spread of the Ebola virus? Absolutely.

The Liberian society is an oral society that thrives on what one’s neighbor said and survives on what is heard by word of mouth and not from newspapers, from TV screens, or from a government they do not trust. When news of the virus began to spread in Monrovia, Liberians listened mostly to their families in other parts of the country where the virus was already annihilating whole communities. The government made it worse by not talking to them, not speaking in the language they know.

In the disconnect between government and citizenry, Liberia’s death count now stands officially at 1,200 and the infected at more than 2,000. In an admission at the UN Security Council meeting, the Liberian Minister of Defense, Brownie Samukai said, “Ebola is a serious threat to the war-torn nation’s very existence.” His statement came months after Sierra Leone’s President first admitted that “Ebola is a threat to the very existence of Sierra Leone.” Is the Liberian reaction too late?

As a Liberian, I wake up every day believing that there is hope. Sometimes I feel like all is lost and there is no hope. When you hear of a woman who has just died in childbirth, not because of Ebola but because she was turned away due to the lack of adequate clinics, or that eleven family members in one household were wiped out because of the negligence of an unregulated health worker, you are numbed by pain. Out in the streets in Monrovia, dead bodies continue to remain unattended, and clinics are without beds or doctors or nurses. Liberia has already lost more than fifty percent of its doctors, including foreigners, and many of its young and recently graduated nurses. If the picture of dying children on the bare ground being given water from plastic bottles or the bodies of Ebola patients in makeshift clinics do not break our hearts for Liberia, what will? But there the news is worse. The Liberian government has just declared that it is investigating the embezzlement of Ebola funds by its officials. How is it possible that government officials who still enjoy all of the same conveniences they had before the Ebola outbreak can rob the country of the few millions given them by foreign donors? How can the government “investigate” itself? How can there be a place with this kind of cruelty in this kind of catastrophe? When will the Liberian government take full control of its politics and save its people? How can Ebola be wiped out in such a place? You tell me; I’m listening.

Cover image: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell