Liberia's President: Ebola Re-Energized Her Downtrodden Country : Goats and Soda In an exclusive interview, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf remembers how Liberia was "the poster child of everything that could go wrong." But people lived up to the local proverb: "Go fix it."

Liberia's President: Ebola Re-Energized Her Downtrodden Country

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Here's one more reminder that the battle against Ebola in West Africa goes on. Over the weekend, the vice president of Sierra Leone quarantined himself after one of his security guards died of Ebola. Sierra Leone is one of the countries devastated by the virus.


Another is neighboring Liberia. More than 4,000 people have died there over the past year. The country's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is no stranger to tragedy. She took office in 2006 as Liberia emerged from years of civil war.

GREENE: And now she is guiding her country through a health crisis that in many parts of Liberia exposed a lack of trust in her government. The news has been improving. Recently, there have only been a handful of new Ebola infections, and last week, President Johnson Sirleaf traveled to Washington to meet with President Obama.


PRESIDENT ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Our message is to come and say to the American people, your support, your partnership has worked. We get to thank you.

GREENE: When we sat down with President Johnson Sirleaf here in Washington, we began by asking her if the battle against Ebola has been won.

SIRLEAF: No, it's not totally won. We feel that we've contained it very well. We're confident that it will be won. But we also are in a region where there are other affected countries and a lot of cross-border movements. And so until the other two affected countries have made equal progress, we will continue to be at risk.

GREENE: One of the affected countries you're talking about, Sierra Leone, there have been dozens of new cases there recently, and yet you decided to open the border. Do you worry that you did that too early?

SIRLEAF: No, I don't think so because, you know, we have long and porous borders. And people were moving across the borders anyway. So we might as well open them, but make sure that we put in place those measures that will monitor those movements. And we're doing this collaboratively with Sierra Leone and with Guinea. So we're trying to have an integrated approach that takes into account those movements and like to contain any possibility of the Ebola recurring.

GREENE: So much to sort of celebrate being able to open borders, being able to get kids back to school, life returning to some semblance of normalcy in some ways. Does the idea that this could erupt again, that there could be more cases coming across the border and things could turn in a bad way, does that keep you up at night?

SIRLEAF: There's always that fear. And until the three countries have reached the 42 days, you know, required by the World Health Organization...

GREENE: This is to know when a case hasn't spread to someone else.

SIRLEAF: When it - yes, two series of 21 days, yes. We'll continue to have those fears. But I don't want us to be consumed by fear. We had enough fear in August, in September, in October. We've already overcome those fears by aggressive action to contain the virus.

GREENE: Do you think the image of Liberia has changed through this?

SIRLEAF: Yes, I think it has. I believe, you know, we were already having some difficulties. But I tell you, Ebola - you know, we were the poster child of what everything that could go wrong, disaster, death, destruction all over the place. We, too, as a result of Ebola had a reenergizing of ourselves. We saw a new opportunity to turn this crisis into something that would be good for the country. And it's not just, you know, the leadership. It's also the people, the people in the communities. They were the victims, but they become the victors because they're the ones that took responsibility. They all had a role to play. If you look at the predictions that we faced, I mean, by the end of January, there would be 1.4 million people dead? That was a wake-up call for us, a call to action. Our people rose to that.

GREENE: I wonder, some of the reporting, you know, that my colleagues did and others visited some more remote communities where they found such distrust of the government, almost at disconnect from the government in Monrovia. This sense of this spirit that you are describing, that your country has overcome and that you're turning this into a positive, are you convinced that everyone in every remote community in the country is feeling that? Or...


GREENE: ...Was there a disconnect?

SIRLEAF: Nobody can say to you that everyone in every community feel this engaged, feel this, you know, revival of hope and revival of confidence. But I say that the majority have. And, you know, the distrust was there because this was an unknown enemy. They expected that we knew the answer and that we would solve this right away. We did not have the answer. We did not know what to do. I was as fearful as anyone else in those early days of this epidemic.

And so you can see that they expect if something goes wrong in the country that the leader's going to be able to fix it. We couldn't fix it. And so the distrust, the lack of confidence, the disconnect, as you say, all took place. But I think we all finally realize that all of our lives were at stake. That brought a difference, and that brought the coming together. And so while it's not perfect, while we'll not convince everybody, I think, by and large, Liberians are proud of themselves and proud of the unity that was demonstrated as we fought this disease.

GREENE: I want to give you the chance to respond to one criticism that has been leveled at you and your government, that this crisis exposed poor infrastructure, a health care system that was ill prepared, corruption, that a lot of what happened exposed some flaws in your government. What do you say to that criticism?

SIRLEAF: Which government is flawless? Do they know where we started in 2006? We met a broken country, a people with no hope. Do they know where we started? And for once, we've come in 10 consecutive years of peace and stability. Do they know what we had to fix? I asked them to go and look at the record, where we were then and where we are now. We had diplomatic relations that'd been severed for years. You know, we had a $80 million budget when we came in in 2006 - 80 million. Do you know what that means? That's for one of your high schools. We had a collapsed economy, were growing at seven and a half percent until Ebola struck us back to zero. Unfortunately, we'll have to build it again. But let me say to you, yes, we have problems. We don't have perfection. We do have corruption in the country. It's been there a long time. The deprivation that people suffered led them to a place of survival, and survival meant they had to do anything they could to feed their children and to live.

GREENE: A lot of Liberians love proverbs. Is there a proverb that you feel captures this moment, what your country has been through and where it is today?

SIRLEAF: Go fix it. That's a call to everybody. Go fix it. In other words, do it yourself. Take charge. Empower yourself.

GREENE: Do you think that was lacking before?

SIRLEAF: Yeah. We just, you know, always looked to the government, looked to the NGO, looked to the U.S. You know, all of those were helpful. But the end of the day, we got to do it ourselves.

GREENE: Madam President, thank you very much for the time.

SIRLEAF: Thank you.

GREENE: That's the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She joined us here in Washington, D.C. And I want to turn now to my colleague, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who was on the line from Dakar, Senegal. She has covered the Ebola crisis since it began last year. She's been listening in to the interview we just heard. Ofeibea, welcome.


GREENE: What is the broader picture here, if you can tell us? I mean, we have Liberia. We have Sierra Leone. We have Guinea. How close are these countries to being able to truly say this outbreak is over?

QUIST-ARCTON: Very dangerous territory that, David, because all the specialists will tell you that until there are no cases of Ebola in these three countries that have been most affected, the outbreak continues. And the doctors and the health workers say complacency is now the new enemy, making sure that the traditional ways of burying people, the laying on of hands, kissing people, all that must be history because this is how Ebola spreads. So it's very difficult to say right now when this outbreak will end.

GREENE: Well, Ofeibea, let me just ask you, too. I mean, you know the president of Liberia well. You've interviewed her. You've covered her. You were listening to her here. She told me she's determined to somehow turn this tragedy into good. In her country and the others hit by Ebola, is there really hope for that?

QUIST-ARCTON: There has to be. This region - Liberia, Sierra Leone - they went through civil wars. They say that Ebola has been their new civil war. Guinea, although, it didn't go through civil war, per say, was home to hundreds thousands of refugees from the neighboring countries. And though Ebola has been even worse than civil war, they feel that they can move forward. But I think all three countries are determined and especially the people, and not those just in the cities, those in the back quarter areas of these countries are determined that good must come out of this Ebola scare.

GREENE: That's the voice of NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton who joined us on the line from Senegal. Ofeibea, thanks as always.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thanks, David.

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