Speaking as the World Health Organisation (WHO) released figures showing a continuing fall in cases in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, Liberia’s information minister, Lewis Brown, asked the international community to honour its financial commitments to the region and help it rebuild its shattered health systems.
While cases of Ebola in Liberia have fallen from a peak of more than 300 a week in August and September to eight last week, Brown said there was no room for complacency.
“This is a virus which, given our sociology and health infrastructure, could spread again very, very quickly,” he said. “So we have to make sure that no one has any false sense that the hard work’s done.
“It’s about literally rebuilding our health infrastructure and giving health workers the tools and the resources they need so we can deal with epidemics of this size should they ever occur. We don’t want to get rid of one epidemic and be waiting for the next one to happen.”
Brown echoed the pleas made earlier this week by the UN’s response coordinator, Dr David Nabarro, who asked the world to pay the last third of the $1.5bn (£1bn) it has pledged to defeat Ebola.
“David Nabarro called on the world to make good their commitment to our country,” he said.
“It would be a colossal mistake to abandon Liberia and our neighbours at this time in the belief that it’s all done. Lives will be lost to the virus that could have been spared.”
Despite the caveats, however, the Liberian government is pressing on with plans to reopen the country’s 5,000 public and private schools, which have been closed since the end of July. Neighbouring Guinea has reopened its schools, while Sierra Leone has announced that classes will resume in March.
Brown said the decison to open Liberia’s schools again on 2 February had not been taken lightly.
“There will always be arguments that it’s too early; that parents do not have enough [resources]; that schools may not altogether be ready, but it’s a decision that’s squarely in sync with the progress that we’ve made,” he said. “But more than that, it’s generally good for the psyche of the nation.”
The government has spent between $8m and $10m to date on making schools as Ebola-proof as possible. When the country’s 373,723 students return to their classrooms next month, said Brown, they will find handwashing stations on all school campuses and have their temperatures taken at least twice a day. Ambulances will be on standby and teachers will be trained to keep a close eye on their students’ health, and to conduct random temperature checks.
“Some people are rightly worried about this but, once these measures are in place, parents won’t have to keep their kids at home and the children will be in a controlled environment where teachers are trained to monitor not just their educational progress but also their health,” said Brown.
According to WHO figures, Ebola has killed more than 3,600 people in Liberia and claimed nearly 8,650 lives around the world since it erupted in Guinea in December 2013. The true toll, though, is likely to be far higher, since the statistics include only reported cases and deaths that have been officially recorded.
The Liberian government does not know exactly how many schoolchildren have died, but it is estimated that more than 3,000 children have been orphaned. Brown said those who have lost their parents are receiving counselling and efforts are being made to trace relatives to care for them.
Brown, who described Ebola as the worst crisis Liberia has endured since the end of its 14-year civil war in 2003, admitted that the return to school would be painful for many.
“We don’t expect it to be the greatest moment our children will have, but we’re hoping that like all traumatic events, time and constructive programmes will help to heal all of us,” he said.
“We’re still a deeply traumatised country and we’re not fully out of the woods yet,” he said.
“We’ve lost friends and loved ones but, more than that, we saw the depths to which our humanity can sink: we’ve had regular folks lying on the ground in front of very limited treatment units, literally praying that someone will die overnight so that they can have the bed space. We think these progressive actions will heal more than they will hurt.”