U.S. President Barack Obama bid his Ebola czar farewell Friday, following an announcement that the United States will begin drawing down its military presence in the three West African nations hit hardest by the Ebola epidemic.
The drawdown of troops by no means signals a victory, Obama stressed, but marks a new phase of “transition” in the country’s engagement in the crisis, in which the United States will work toward eradicating Ebola.
Still, February witnessed the first uptick in Ebola cases in 2015. In Liberia, where five of last week’s 124 new cases were recorded, the government postponed the reopening of schools to Feb. 16.
While Obama reaffirmed his commitment to reaching “zero cases” in West Africa — where more than 9,000 people have died since the epidemic began in March 2014 — fears remain within the Liberian government that foreign aid will end with the crisis.
Devex spoke with Liberian Assistant Minister of Health Tolbert Nyenswah about his vision for the development community’s role in a post-Ebola Liberia.
Liberia’s health system was growing stronger when Ebola hit, and as a result Liberia suffered fewer losses to the disease. How do countries in the developing world begin to prepare for the unforeseeable?
This is a resource-poor country, but we tackled our health agenda very well and very early. We developed a national health plan, an essential package of health services, a road map for the accelerated reduction of child mortality, and also tackled infectious diseases. The government had put in 19 percent of its national budget to health before the Ebola crisis. We were also moving toward high immunization coverage, the first time we hit over 80 percent coverage, we’re declining in our maternal mortality ratio. The [Millennium Development Goal to reduce child mortality] was achieved ahead of targets. But we were not and are not there yet.
What was Liberia doing right in its Ebola response?
In the midst of the outbreak, nobody had a solution. This is the time that the global health community should come together to find a solution to future epidemics.
A lot of the work that was done, it came from the strong leadership of the government, it came from our multilateral and bilateral partners, it came from the community. The Liberia response has worked, it’s what got us lower rates of infection, down to one or two cases a week. But there’s still a lot of work here. We still need to work hard, but with that response needs to be tacked on a global effort to prepare for future epidemics. As we speak, we’re moving toward making history as a country, to finding a solution.
How do you leverage Ebola resources and the momentum of Ebola recovery toward building up health systems in Liberia?
The thing is, our country has a plan. We have a national health plan, a road map for health care workers, we now are doing an assessment to build a resilient health care system. So all of these initiatives are a window of opportunity that we can use now to build a health care system that will remain after Ebola for a long time. Training of health care workers, building new health facilities, improving the laboratory system, looking at surveillance systems, these are critical things that our development partners need to support.
The development community must look at the building blocks we had in place toward a successful health care system. Moving forward, they can support us in health infrastructure, health care financing, laboratory surveillance and building resilient health education system, using teachers and expertise drawn from around the world. We need not only to restore our own potential but provide comprehensive health care for the Liberian people. This is the trajectory that the government had before Ebola, so we want to leverage some of the Ebola resources and get some additional resources to support our health system.
The World Bank has announced that it will provide up to $15 million in agricultural materials in anticipation of a food shortage in the region. What other kinds of support do you feel the country needs from donors?
The Ebola crisis did not only affect the health sector. Every facet of our society was affected. From women and children to social protections, our economy and financial system; the GDP suffered hugely because of Ebola. But in particular, multilateral donors and banks should attend to our top government priority: roads, power and energy. Those are the three things that we need funded. All of these areas are critical, and we need to get real-time resources from the global development community.
How can the international development community best help Liberia recover from the Ebola crisis? Share us your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.