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Recognition of decisive leadership, empathy and humility: Celebrating Ma Ellen

by Lazenya Weekes-Richemond

Guest blogger Lazenya Weekes-Richemond speaks fondly of witnessing Her Excellency Madame Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's impact in global health for her 83rd birthday.

I touched down in Liberia in October 2010, proud to kick-start my global health career in a country that made history electing Africa’s first female president in 2005.

Her Excellency Madame Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf - affectionately known as “Ma Ellen” - had been in power for four years by then and driving past her modest house every day to get to work, I quickly learnt there was no pomp and circumstance about her. She was all about doing the hard work of rebuilding the country and its collapsed health system after fourteen years of brutal civil war.

I have long admired Ma Ellen and her decisive leadership style and today on her 83rd birthday, I honour this powerhouse of a woman in global health.

In 2010, Liberia had one of the worst maternal mortality rates and highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. During her presidency, Her Excellency was a staunch advocate for strengthening health systems, improving the quality of care and providing free healthcare to all Liberians. I saw first-hand the country’s strong focus on maternal health through investment in human resources for health, equipping health facilities to provide a basic package of health services and community and national level campaigns to reach every pregnant woman.

In her address to the 63rd World Health Assembly in May 2010, Her Excellency focused on global cooperation to improve health globally:

“Pandemics can spread without passports. Diseases don’t stop at national borders or checkpoints. Improving the health of our people is not only of fundamental importance to our nations and our citizens themselves; it also has crucial economic and geopolitical implications that reach far beyond the narrow interests of any one country. In a globalized planet, the world’s health has to be a shared responsibility.”

Little did she realise that four years after giving this speech, the deadly Ebola virus disease would arrive on Liberia’s shores in 2014. Ma Ellen’s impressive leadership came to the fore immediately. Within days of the first Ebola case being detected in Liberia, she declared a state of emergency in the country - even before the World Health Organization declared the epidemic a Public Health Emergency of International Concern - and headed up a national task force to respond to the outbreak. Community health workers who have long been the backbone of public health programmes were mobilised as first responders, conducting contact tracing to mitigate the spread of the deadly disease.

Her Excellency was bold enough to admit the limitations to her country’s healthcare infrastructure. Ego didn’t stand in her way and she requested international support from the US to help curb the deadly epidemic.

I keenly followed the Ebola epidemic in Liberia while working in Haiti and I was fortunate to return to Liberia in 2016, a year after the Ebola epidemic ended - which claimed the lives of nearly 5000 Liberians. I was working on a neglected tropical disease project with the Ministry of Health and a Ministry driver who was redeployed as a driver during the Ebola response told me during the crisis, even the presidential convoy moved out of the way to allow response teams to transport sick patients to treatment centres.

Ambulances at the site of an Ebola flare-up in Margibi County, Liberia. /Kate Thomas

Since her presidency ended in 2018, Ma Ellen has emerged as a prominent global health thought leader and an advocate of health as a fundamental human right. She has been very vocal during the Coronavirus pandemic, serving as co-chair of a review of the global response to the pandemic. Her recent reflection underscores the importance of global solidarity at a time when countries are being increasingly nationalistic.

“The threat of COVID-19 cannot be eliminated nationally, or even regionally. It will not be over until everyone is safe. Vaccinating only “our own” populations is not enough.”

As Western countries have rushed to vaccinate large portions of their populations against COVID-19, some even introducing booster jabs, as of the end of October, only 3.1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose. Her Excellency has not shied away from calling out the global vaccine roll out inequity. During her recent address at the White House Covid summit in September, she boldly laid bare this gross injustice:

“It is not right that the richer countries of the world have vaccinated between 50-80 percent of their population while the poorer countries have hardly achieved 5 per cent”.

In June this year, Her Excellency joined 32 former heads of state to denounce U.K. FCDO withdrawing funding for vital global health programmes including for Neglected Tropical Diseases - which disproportionately affect women and girls, causing severe morbidity and disability.

Having admired her from afar for over a decade, as we celebrate Her Excellency’s 83rd birthday today, I wish to thank Ma Ellen for her inspirational leadership through Liberia’s challenging post-conflict period, during the 2 year West Africa Ebola epidemic and now during this unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic.

Ma Ellen is showing no signs of slowing down and I continue to glean from her as she champions global health efforts to ensure no one is left behind as we work towards attaining the Sustainable Development Goals. If I could contribute half of what Ma Ellen has done and continues to do to reduce health inequities and improve health outcomes, I’d definitely call that a job well done!

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