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Liberia is Ebola-free—raising hopes for the region

By Oxfam
Elena Nagbe of Liberia lost five of her family members to Ebola. When she came down with symptoms of the disease, she was rushed to a local treatment unit and released about two weeks later. Photo by Pabolo Tosco/Oxfam

Communities have played the leading role in stopping the spread of the virus, but challenges remain as families struggle to recover economically.

In the global fight against Ebola, Liberia announced good news earlier this month: The country is now free of the deadly disease—about 12 months after Oxfam first launched an emergency response to tackle the outbreak in West Africa. In that time, we have reached more than 1.4 million people, including nearly 474,000 in Liberia where we have been providing health facilities and schools with water and sanitation services as well working with communities on Ebola awareness and prevention.

“Liberia has worked hard to reach this point and the nation and its people should take credit for how they dealt with this terrible outbreak,” said Mamudu Salifu, Oxfam’s country director in Liberia. “The government recognized early on that working with ordinary people, rather than forcing health measures on them, would ease fears and mistrust around Ebola. Ensuring that communities play a leading role has been an essential factor in stopping the spread.”

At the height of the epidemic, during a 21-day national average last September, there were more than 60 confirmed cases a day in Liberia. Now, eight months later, Liberia’s success in bringing the disease under control may give hope to countries still struggling with it.

“Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea should now work together to ensure the region as a whole achieves zero cases,” said Salifu.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus has already claimed the lives of more than 11,000 people. The agency lists Guinea and Sierra Leone as countries where the transmission of the disease is still widespread.

This week, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO) is holding its annual meeting in Geneva where discussions of the Ebola outbreak have been taking place.

“Broken health systems need fixing and it takes more than words to make this happen,” said Mohga Kamal-Yanni, a senior health policy advisor for Oxfam in response to some of those discussions. “Strong national healthcare, community involvement and an accountable and better-resourced WHO would go a long way toward keeping countries resilient when Ebola is no longer headline news. Funding for new medical research is critical if we are to combat Ebola and other neglected diseases.”

Economic struggles ahead

Marronline Dahn is a small trader in Liberia whose business has suffered since the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. Photo by Melanie Kramers/Oxfam
Restoring good health to the region is only part of the battle: Local economies have taken a severe hit, too. According to the World Bank, about 180,000 people have lost their jobs in Sierra Leone since the start of the outbreak and by March, half the heads of households in Liberia were out of work. About 73 percent of Liberians have watched their incomes plummet and will need help to recover.

“Before Ebola, business was fine. I used to sell small things like biscuits and sardines. I would buy them from Monrovia and carry them here,” said Marronline Dahn, a small trader and mother of six children who lives in rural Nimba county in eastern Liberia. She is the leader of a 30-member women’s savings group that Oxfam is helping to support.

“But when Ebola came, I sold everything. I couldn’t go anywhere to buy more. I spent all my little money for food,” said Dahn, who would like to send her children to school but can’t afford the fees. “Since Ebola, it is very difficult to find money to save each month because business has gone down.”

A successful recovery package for the West Africa region should aim to address three areas:

  • cash for families affected by the crisis so they can pay for basic necessities like food and school fees;
  • an investment in jobs, particularly in sectors that benefit poor people such as fisheries and agriculture;
  • and support for essential services including health, education, water and sanitation.

Regional recovery will require a large and sustained global effort, with national governments leading the effort. In addition to our Ebola awareness and prevention work, Oxfam is calling on the international community to support a multi-million dollar plan to help countries get back on their feet.

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