Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Prays to Kill Ebola by Christmas

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Photo: John Moore, Getty Images)
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
(Photo: John Moore, Getty Images)

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared Wednesday that her nation is turning the tide against the deadly Ebola virus, and “we want to have zero cases by Christmas.”

“It’s a tall order. We’re trying to work at that,” Johnson Sirleaf said in an interview with USA TODAY. “We like to say that Ebola was running after us two months ago. Today, we are running after Ebola.”

The World Health Organization released figures Wednesday showing that nearly 3,000 Liberians have died from Ebola since the virus first flared in a northern county last spring before exploding into the capital in June and July. The country has had more cases and deaths than any other.

As assistance from aid groups, the United Nations and the United States flooded into the country, the rate of infection and death declined dramatically in recent weeks, though the disease continues to flare in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea. The number of daily Ebola infections in Liberia has declined from nearly 100 a day in September to about 25.

Encouraged by the progress, Johnson Sirleaf said, “We’re confident that now we are in a position to win the battle.”

Johnson Sirleaf expressed regret at how the government initially handled the crisis — not educating communities earlier about Ebola to prevent superstitious fears that the plague was “witchcraft” or a government conspiracy. The result was a failure to identify and isolate Ebola patients, she said.

“We didn’t involve communities” in the disaster response, Johnson Sirleaf said, “If we were doing it again, we would start with educating the public about this disease. There was not enough of that.”

Johnson Sirleaf described her near helplessness in trying to lead her West African nation when the Ebola virus swept into the capital this summer.

“We were really overwhelmed. … We were in a situation of total confusion. We didn’t know what to do,” said the 76-year-old leader. “We became the poster child of disaster, medical disaster.

“We thought it was settled. We thought that it had been resolved (in March),” she said. “So people never thought about closing the borders, having the kind of response that was required at the time, until the disease came back with a vengeance in June.”

A Nobel Peace Prize winner and the first woman elected president on the African continent, Johnson Sirleaf said withering internal criticism struck at the foundation of her authority.

“We were all questioned about whether we were leading properly, and we were all questioned (about) whether we were doing the right things. It was painful,” she said. “Very difficult for me personally. Very difficult for the nation.”

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Gregg Zoroya

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