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Sierra Leone president defends his reaction to the Ebola crisis

ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers speaks to Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma. Credit: ITV News/Dan Rivers

We’d been promised we’d have at least 20 minutes to set up our equipment for an interview with the president of Sierra Leone Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma.

After waiting in a meeting room we were ushered to his cluttered office to prepare for the encounter.

It was crowded with advisers and press secretaries. Behind a desk at the far side, was an elderly gentleman making notes.

I did a double take and felt confused. Was that the president already sitting there? So much for our 20 minutes!

My cameraman hurriedly set up lights and the camera, as the audience of presidential staff watched on and the president silently continued his work.

He finally came over to say hello and the interview got underway. This is a rare public appearance by the president who has shunned the limelight since his country has been plunged into the chaos of the world’s worst Ebola epidemic.

He defended his perceived slow reaction to Ebola, saying:

The outbreak was announced in May and it was new to all of us … we’re not alone in the fight, we had WHO who were principally advising us on how to act, and every step of the way,

I believe we have reacted appropriately.

– Sierra Leone president, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma

His critics say he took five weeks to say anything publicly about Ebola, and it took 15 weeks to declare a national emergency.

I asked him whether he felt let down by the international community. He was too diplomatic to be overtly critical but conceded, “There have been commitments in terms of filling in the gaps, we wish this was done at some time in the past, but that is where we are.”

Translation: the world has taken a long time to wake up to this, but they are finally sending the people and equipment we need.

The hospital in Freetown is overwhelmed with cases of Ebola. Credit: ITV News

He thinks by the end of the year the virus will be contained and that the “worst will soon be over”. I’m not so sure.

We visited the main hospital in Freetown where new patients arriving with a fever are forced to wait in a tent outside the main gate, because the isolation ward inside is so overwhelmed.

The most dire predictions for the spread of the virus are really scary.

If the hospital here is unable to cope now, turning away patients who clearly are sick and could be infectious, what an earth will be the situation in a month’s time when the number of infected may have doubled from three to six thousand in Sierra Leone?

Transcript of Dan Rivers' interview with the president of Sierra Leone

There has been some criticism of the international community's response, that it's been too little too late. Do you feel that the people of Sierra Leone have been let down?

Well my focus now is moving forward. I don't want to get back into what has happened, I think we have now mustered enough international support. The UN is here, they have established a mission, the UK government has come in a big way to provide support to the government and the people.

The Americans are here, the Chinese, the Germans, the African Union. A lot of support has now been mustered to fight Ebola. I think the world has come to the realisation that Ebola is not an issue of just one country or just one region, it is a global issue.

We believe with this international solidarity that is now on board, we should focus on coordinating the efforts and ensuring we get Ebola behind us as soon as possible.

– Ernest Bai Koroma

Some of your media here have been critical of your leadership during this crisis- it took you five weeks to speak after the outbreak, 10 weeks to visit the epicentre, 15 weeks to declare an emergency. Do you accept that your personal reaction was slow?

The Ebola outbreak was announced in May and it was new to all of us. It has no clearly defined path on how you should address it.

The reaction when we had the outbreak was also very mixed from our people and we were not alone in the fight. We also had WHO, who had principally advised us on what do and at every step of the way we have had consultations with them and I believe that we have been reacting appropriately.

– Ernest Bai Koroma

So you don't feel that in hindsight you would have done things differently?

I believe that the government came in very big in the initial reactions. We depended entirely on government resources, government personnel to execute the fight and if the government had not reacted in the way and manner it did when we had the outbreak, maybe it could have been worse than what we are experiencing.

But you must realise that all of what was done initially and until most recently we were purely government efforts. Even support provided by the international partners was purely advisory and I believe that the government has been very focused, the government was determined but we were clearly outstretched.

We are coming from a situation wherein we had to start building up our medical infrastructure. We had limited personnel out there- it is not something that was caused by our government, we inherited it but we are determined to effect changes and the changes are already being appreciated out there because the mortality rates we are changing.

The people visiting treatment or medical centres was on the increase and we initiated a free healthcare scheme that was registering a lot of success. We know there are still challenges but all of it was going on and we were rated as number two in terms of economy growth in the whole world and we have maintained that position for two years running- we were busy doing that when Ebola struck.

– Ernest Bai Koroma

That economic growth is clearly going to come to a standstill now. Are you worried about the economy of this country?

Of course. Everybody will be worried. We are positioning ourselves to effect in a transformation in the country.

We believe that the first five years of the transformation was what we were going through when we had this difficulty.

There has been lots of reverses. The economy is slowing down now, inflation is increasing and the revenues of government dwindling down. Everything is affected and everybody is directly or indirectly affected by this. This was not what we expected at the start of the year but this is where we find ourselves now and we must just move forward.

– Ernest Bai Koroma

There has been talk, perhaps alarmist, about this threatening the very existence of some of these countries, Sierra Leone included. If Ebola isn't tackled it will lead to a complete breakdown of the situation here. Is that something you're concerned about?

Well, we are happy that there has been a lot of international response. There has been commitment in terms of filling in the gaps we wanted and there is a lot of work going on now - we wish this had been done some time in the past, but that is where we are. We are working on improving on the bed capacity of the country, the laboratory capacity, the holding centres, we are marshalling a lot of resources to train our medical officers and there is a lot coming from outside; the British are now training medical teams at various centres, the Chinese have come in with their medical teams and I believe that the worst will soon be over.

I am of the view that by the end of the year we will be in a position of not eliminating, but containing the Ebola virus.

– Ernest Bai Koroma

How many people by then, do you think, will have died?

I cannot make any projections on the numbers. Our focus is to cut down the increase in the numbers that we are now having and the Ebola is such that the impact within 21 days can be substantial and that is why we believe with all of the efforts that we are making, we will get there.

– Ernest Bai Koroma

What's your message to the international community - you still need more help, don't you?

Certainly.

A lot has been done but we still have gaps. We still need more doctors, nurses, hygienists, nutritionists, lab technicians, social anthropologists that will come in and help people in the contact tracing and social mobilisation and logistical support also required - so there is still a lot to do but, with the response is now being galvanised, is encouraging but it will not be enough.

We have to work together until we bring this whole fight against Ebola behind us.

– Ernest Bai Koroma

There is a lot of hysteria in the West, particularly about Ebola. Would you like to take the opportunity to correct that hysteria?

I think I have clearly indicated that Ebola is now a global issue but Ebola can also be addressed. We have had over 700 Sierra Leoneans that have survived, treated in our centres. We have put in place protocols in our airports and seaports to ensure that we don’t export Ebola.

We believe that by collaborative efforts we will be able to isolate Ebola and get is behind us. The focus should be on all if us working together to isolate Ebola. There is no point isolating any country that has the infection. We believe there are established protocols that we have adhered to.

If there is anything more we should do in terms of enhancing the procedures in the airport screening, we are quite prepared to do so, but I think isolating Sierra Leone is not helping.

Ebola in Sierra Leone is Ebola everywhere. Ebola in Liberia is everywhere and isolation is not helping and having any fear about people going to the country or coming from the country will not help. This is a global issue and it must bee addressed globally.

– Ernest Bai Koroma

Are you confident those resources are in the pipeline?

Well, a lot of promises have been made but there is a lot of work in progress - you see it in terms of visibility of foreign personnel that are coming in.

The troops are in. The UK government has sent in soldiers and medicals to come build our centres.

The Chinese have also come in with their medical [supplies], they have built a laboratory and trying to provide logistical support.

So there is a lot of work in progress, which is encouraging but there is still a lot to do.

So I think whilst we appreciate what has been done we believe that with more support we will get Ebola behind us pretty soon.

– Ernest Bai Koroma

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