Two days ago, Liberia’s national Ebola coordinator, Tolbert Nyenswah, showed me around the Emergency Operations Centre in Monrovia. It’s not a particularly glamorous place. It’s a large, hangar-like room, with long tables of people at laptops crunching numbers. The walls are covered in plans and graphs. The staff are constantly moving around, sticking pins into maps and updating the figures. It has the atmosphere of a busy call centre.
It is in rooms like this, or like the National Ebola Centre’s situation room and the Western Area Emergency Response Centre in Sierra Leone, or the Ebola Response Unit in Guinea, where the battle with Ebola will be won or lost. Because it is these systems that keep decision-makers informed about how the crisis is developing. The challenge now for the international community is to use these systems to work both harder – by ramping up the resources to tackle the disease – and more intelligently – by finding the approaches that work and getting them where they’re needed, fast. We need to outsmart Ebola if we’re going to eradicate it.
The Ebola crisis is still extremely serious. But the good thing is that we are learning what it takes to beat the virus. In my trip to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea I saw that where the right elements of the response are in place the number of new cases will fall. That means safe burials, providing hospital beds and doctors, quick lab testing to see if people are infected, and behaviour change so that people know how to stay safe. Liberia, for instance, saw a decline in the number of new cases of Ebola each week throughout September and October.
Just because we know what’s needed doesn’t mean it’s all there of course. We’re still seeing shortages of doctors and delays in laboratory testing to diagnose cases. So we need to keep pushing to get enough resources in place, because if we do so fast enough we can slow the spread of the disease.
We’re also learning how our response to Ebola needs to change to stay ahead of the disease. It’s not just about the size of the response; it’s about the shape too. Are the hospital beds where they need to be or do we have empty beds in some places and too few beds in others? Do we have good management systems in some districts but not in others? If Ebola breaks out in a new area can we move resources there fast to snuff it out before it takes hold? Are the successes in one country being replicated by its neighbours? We need to be able to answer these questions to move from decelerating Ebola to destroying it.
I’ve seen how the Ebola response in West Africa works best when national governments, international agencies and NGOs work together as a single team, not a committee of different organisations.”
And we’re understanding that taking on a crisis like this requires a new way of operating. I’ve seen how the Ebola response in West Africa works best when national governments, international agencies and NGOs work together as a single team, not a committee of different organisations. In the Situation Room in Sierra Leone, for example, I saw Sierra Leonean army officers and health officials working as colleagues with British military personnel, United Nations teams, NGOs and the staff of my own foundation. Each organisation achieves much more by working in this way than they ever could on their own.
Finally, we need to take some of the lessons from the response and apply them to the recovery of the Ebola-affected countries. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have made great progress in recent years and we need to stay with them as they get back on track. The international community must stay when Ebola goes. The response to Ebola has shown us that with a clear plan, a strong sense of urgency and focus, and a genuine partnership to deliver results, we can get things moving. We should take the principles of the Situation Room or Operations Centre and apply them to the big problems of recovery like getting the lights on in people’s homes, getting children back to school, or getting roads built. So we need recovery plans ready to go the moment the crisis ends.
As we walked round Liberia’s Emergency Operations Centre, Nyenswah told me that even a few weeks ago the centre had just been a few empty tables in a room. Now, under his leadership, it’s really impressive: the nerve-centre managing the Ebola crisis. He showed me a sign that hangs above the bustle of the centre, it reads “We will over all prevail”. If we can get behind the unsung heroes like Nyenswah and others like him in Sierra Leone and Guinea; if we can get them the resources and logistical support they need; and if we can match a fraction of their passion and determination to get ahead of the disease, then it’s true, we will prevail.
The work described here was carried out by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, it is now being continued by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.