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Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speaks with NPR about the challenges of COVID-19 vaccine rollouts across Africa

As COVID-19 vaccination programs begin around the world, it is clear that countries, and even entire continents, are at different stages of progress. Some countries have already vaccinated millions of people, while others have yet to begin.

Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who serves as Co-Chair of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR), was recently interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition following the launch of Bloomberg’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker, an interactive map which shows global COVID-19 vaccine distribution data in real time. At the time of the interview in late January 2021 the map of Africa remained completely blank, indicating that no doses of the vaccine had been administered in any African country.

Madam Sirleaf and Morning Edition host, Steve Inskeep, began their conversation by talking about the logistical challenges and the unprecedented scale of national COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. Madam Sirleaf noted that many African countries do not currently have sufficient resources to access the vaccine, and stressed the obligation wealthier countries have to develop programs that allow for widespread and equitable access: 

“Unless vaccine is seen as a free good on the basis that until everyone is safe, no one is safe—when it’s seen in that context, then, perhaps, the wealthier nations of the world will …‘How can we share the vaccine with those countries that are under-resourced?’”

Reflecting on the challenges faced during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014-2016—during her tenure as President of Liberia—Madam Sirleaf emphasized the importance of building support and partnerships across countries, and said of the current COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout:

“We will face logistical challenges, no doubt. But I’d like to point out the case of Ebola, when Africa put up a platform to ensure that the medications and the responses to Ebola were made available through support of African countries, that this platform was used to ensure equitable distribution among those African countries in need.”

Drawing upon her experience leading during the Ebola crisis, Madam Sirleaf also spoke about how to best communicate with citizens in order to ensure their cooperation and safety:

“ou need to get proper information, reliable information on the state of the disease…to citizens so that they don’t have to guess. They don’t have to speculate as to the extent of the effect of the disease. And one has to have coordination…That’s the only way you can win the confidence of citizens to ensure that…they take the medication or they adhere to the protocol, whether it’s masks, whether it’s social distancing.”

Discussing how, similar to what was seen with COVID-19, in the early days of the Ebola outbreak there was widespread skepticism about its seriousness, Madam Sirleaf explained:

“We were able to overcome through strong government action. And leaders have to be able to convey…the severity of this disease to their lives and to their livelihoods in very clear terms with very clear action and strong commitment not only to formulate those measures, but to find a means to ensure their citizens’ understanding and are willing to comply for their own safety.” 

In conclusion, Madam Sirleaf stressed that, when it comes to citizens’ concerns about COVID-19: 

“It’s up to leaders to address those fears and those concerns and to make sure that they overcome them.” 

You can listen to the full interview and read the transcript of the conversation here.

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