Seconded to Liberia: from peace process to war against Ebola

Since 2013, Linnéa Lindberg is seconded by the FBA as peacebuilding advisor to the UN mission UNMIL in the Liberian capital Monrovia. Linnéa is a lawyer by profession, with a focus on human rights. She shares her thoughts on the national reconciliation process in Liberia – a country torn apart by two bloody civil wars between 1989 and 2003. The peace process was moving forward and the situation was finally stabilising, when the Ebola epidemic broke out in March 2014.

What are the main challenges in Liberia at the moment?
– Coordination and clear leadership. The situation in Liberia is very serious and many actors want to help. Money is currently not the main issue. What is needed is material, in terms of ambulances, hospitals, isolation centers, and also people who know how an Ebola outbreak can be stopped. Another serious concern is that part of the local population still denies that Ebola exists. Health workers have been attacked when providing treatment, and those who are responsible for disinfecting houses after someone living there has died from Ebola, have been accused of “spraying Ebola”. Without recognition from the local population it is very difficult to stop the outbreak.

How do you think the surrounding world has reacted to the outbreak?
– When the world began to realise the seriousness of the Ebola outbreak, the first reaction was to isolate the affected countries in Western Africa, rather than to provide support. That is one of the reasons it took a long time for needed assistance to arrive. Since an Ebola outbreak of this magnitude is unprecedented for the UN, the international community and not the least the affected countries, it has taken a long time to create effective coordination systems. All the actors on the ground are continuously working on improving the coordination mechanism.

How does the outbreak affect Liberia’s health care system?
– Many health care workers have died of Ebola due because they didn’t have access to the appropriate protective equipment. This has severely affected other health care, and many people die of diseases relatively easy to cure, like Malaria, because there are not enough health care workers or hospitals that receive non-Ebola patients.

Does the Ebola epidemic affect Liberia’s long-term development?
– The epidemic has a negative effect on Liberia’s development. Liberia’s brutal civil war ended only about ten years ago, and during this time Liberia has been trying to build a functioning state without actually having solved the main causes of conflict. The epidemic is threatening the vulnerable security situation and if action is not taken immediately, there is a risk the state collapses, and this can unfortunately lead to Liberia relapsing into war.

Are you not afraid?
– From a personal point of view I’m not afraid of contracting Ebola. I know how to protect myself and what I have to avoid. The most stressful thing has been all the rumours that easily spread in this type of situation. There are now only two airlines flying to Liberia. At one point we thought that we would be completely isolated.

How can Sweden and the international community support the fight against Ebola?
– Isolating the affected countries is not the solution. The affected countries have to be able to interact with the rest of the world to prevent unwanted side effects.

It is very important to start planning for Liberia “post-Ebola”. The international community has to stand ready to support Liberia to prevent that the situation deteriorates. Support to the state apparatus is needed continuously during the outbreak period. Since the Ebola outbreak is challenging the security situation in the country, it is important to look at how security institutions are operating and make sure that they are present around the country to be able to respond to incidents without unnecessary delays.

As one of the major donors in Liberia, it is of course important for Sweden to make sure that already invested resources have not been invested in vain, especially not the support to the state apparatus. It is also the responsibility of the international community, including Sweden, to get correct information about how Ebola is contracted and how to prevent an epidemic. By disseminating inaccurate information, fear is spread, and fear is a great threat.

What does daily life look like in Monrovia at the moment?
– Unfortunately, many friends and colleagues have left Liberia, and the social outlet that we usually have is no longer there. Restaurants are open but with few visitors, bars and clubs have shut down since curfew is at 11 pm every day. Luckily there is no problem finding food in the supermarkets.

I meet my national partners less, since all non-essential meetings, outside Ebola response activities, are restricted. Almost all communication is via e-mail or phone. As soon as we enter UNMIL’s premises we get our temperature taken, and all staff members have received hand sanitisers. My Colombian partner and I were recently in Sweden on leave. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Sweden so much as I did this time. To be able to move freely and feel safe is underestimated.

How do you see the development in the next six months?
– Unfortunately all information indicates that the number of Ebola cases in Liberia will increase considerably within the next few months. But more help is on its way. For example, UN is setting up an Ebola mission in Ghana, that will provide support to the affected countries. After the initial shock has subsided, we now notice that people are trying to live as normal as possible under the circumstances. This is a positive sign.

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