Q&A: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Co-Chair, the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response

In recent reforms-related discussions at WHO, some countries want independent teams to have access to outbreak sites going forward. Geopolitical pressures and a highly politicized environment has made global health security a defining agenda as a result of the pandemic. In an interview with one of the co-chairs of the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR), we tried to get a sense of the challenges that this panel faces.

Q&A: Former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Co-Chair of the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf [Image Credit: The Elders]

[GHF] 1.       What are the key learnings from previous similar investigations which the panel can apply while examining the response to this pandemic?   

[EJS] There is much we can learn from work that has been done before, both on how a panel can work most effectively and how we can most effectively manage a pandemic.

I must start by saying that it is not for me to criticize previous panels. I believe previous panels have done good work to diagnose key issues and understand what has gone wrong in the past and how things can be improved in the future.

From my experience, it is perhaps not a question of how well a panel has worked.  But, instead, to consider the context in which the panel was operating. It is a question of the times: Was the world ready to hear these recommendations? Was it ready to implement them? And we must also remember that in our multilateral system, including at the World Health Organization, Member States decide what they are ready to do—and what they are not ready to do. Some of the most powerful countries hold a powerful sway. And they can decide whether to implement—and most importantly, invest—in new ways of doing things.

We are now living in different times. This is the first time in many generations, in our living memory, that an infectious respiratory illness has affected almost every country on every continent. And I think that it is because of the widespread nature of this pandemic that countries may be ready to hear—and ready to act on—recommendations made today, when they may not have done so before. For example, we know that several countries already have ideas to amend the International Health Regulations and reform the World Health Organization. And, in early December, the United Nations General Assembly will hear from many countries of the world at a meeting being held to specifically address COVID-19. It is the World Health Assembly itself that requested the initiation of our Panel. These are signs that we are truly in a moment of change.

I am Co-Chairing the respected Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, comprised of some of the leading experts on infectious disease outbreaks and management, on the global health system, on public administration, leadership, on crisis management, on economics and on social issues.  This Panel has a unique ability to find the facts and evidence, while keeping the big picture in clear view.  I am confident the Panel’s recommendations will be right for the times.

The COVID-19 pandemic is redolent of the Ebola crisis, which I faced when I was President of Liberia. And so of course it is natural for us in Liberia, as in other countries that were affected by Ebola outbreaks, to look back on that time, and perhaps draw comparisons between the two.


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