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Special Feature

Remarks by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Former President of the Republic of Liberia

Nobel Peace Prize Laurate
At the World Health Organization

Side Event
Investing in Education

21 SEPTEMBER 2019 – 3:00 – 4:30

His Excellency Mr. Soltan bin Saad Al-Muraikhi,
State Minister of Foreign Affairs – Qatar

His Excellency Dr. TedrosAdhanomGhebreyesus, Director-General World Health Organization

His Excellency Mr. Bent Hoie, Minister of Health and Care Services, Norway

Our talented Moderator, Ms. Femi Oke
When I took office in 2006, Liberian Women and Children were dying of malaria. We had no data or statistic on the disease and little or no diagnostic capacity at the local level to differentiate a patient with a fever from a patient with malaria. My administration had to make informed decisions and meaningful interventions while being virtually in the dark.

Today, more than twelve years later, I speak to you not only as Liberia’s Former President and WHO Health Workforce Ambassador but also as one who has lived through the trauma of helplessness as the deafening sirens of ambulances and the heart breaking weeping of a fleeing population made it impossible to hold back the tears of fear from the unfolding crisis and the prospect of a looming future of devastation from an enemy we did not know.

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That was 2014, when Liberia was confronted with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The Ebola virus fueled by weakened national health systems led to devastating effects, including the loss of over 4000 of our citizens, setbacks in health outcomes, the death of nearly 10% of my country’s doctors, nurses, and midwives, and a reversal of a positive economic growth trajectory that had been achieved over the past several years.In 2015, with the response and support of global partners, the epidemic was brought under control commencing the processes of furthering the research and development of vaccines aimed at prevention.

In response, Liberia enacted bold reforms, reinforcing free of charge primary health care and revising the National Community Health Services Policy to recognize the critical role played by community health workers in defeating the virus. We advocated that they should be paid; managed by clinic based supervisors such as nurses and trained more comprehensively in evidence based services. We strengthened the health systems supporting them, including training, supply chains, logistics and health information.

In 2016, Liberia led a coalition of non-governmental organizations and partners to launch the National Community Health Assistant program building upon and expanding Last Mile Health’s model, which supported community health workforce to become first responders to fight the epidemic and deliver health care services. With support of key partners such as Global Fund, UNICEF, The World Bank, and USAID the program has to date deployed over 3,500 frontline nurse supervisors and community health workers to some 75% of the remote rural population with primary health care through 2 million patient visits since 2016. Data indicates that community health workers carry out 30% of the entire country’s testing and treatment for malaria — and reduced the incidence of the disease in the communities.

This is notable progress, but we know that we must do more. I recently returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo where the WHO is once again battling an Ebola epidemic, highlighting the importance of long-term investment in resilient health systems that include investment in education of front line health workforce workers like nurses, midwives and community health workers. It is a smart investment in human capital that not only delivers more than health outcomes but, as Liberia’s experience shows, drives economic opportunities and create jobs especially for women, youth and rural communities.

Today, we are at a historic moment in the fight for a Universal Health Coverage. At the High Level meeting on Monday, September 23rd, all Members States will be asked to commit to the priorities and principles of UHC outlined in the Political Declaration. For commitments to be fulfilled it is necessary to invest in front line and community health workers and the primary health care system that supports them.

This requires long term innovative, financial instruments that cover high capital cost. One way to do this is to engage the International Financing Institutions and philanthropic foundations as key partners to co-invest, alongside governments, in the education and employment of health workers. The conversation we are having today is a starting point. I would like to thank our co-hosts for initiating this and am encouraged to see the European Investment Bank, the World Bank and Silatech are part of today’s panel.
Your Excellences, fellow panelists, colleagues, let’s grasp this opportunity.

We keep hearing and are reminded that we will be short 18 million necessary health workers by 2030. Let us be mindful also that this would mean that we will miss out on 18 million opportunities for economic empowerment and dignified employment.
We cannot let this happen. You cannot let this happen.

As the WHO Health Workforce Ambassador, I urge us all to call for increased investments in the health workforce and to take action on our Declaration beyond the General Assembly.It is the fair thing to do. It is the right thing to do.
Thank you.

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