Ebola in Sierra Leone: Challenges and Prospects for Young People

Last Tuesday, Sylvia Blyden, a former senior executive assistant to President Ernest Koroma, was on a panel at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, an independent policy institute in Britain.

Blyden, who serves as youth rights activist and Goodwill Ambassador for Sierra Leone, discussed her experience of the challenges faced by young people as a result of the Ebola crisis and explored ways in which the government of Sierra Leone and the international community can collectively respond. 

London, January 20th 2015: Thank you to the Royal Institute of International Affairs for inviting me to speak this evening here at Chatham House and thank you Alex Vines, Head of the Africa Programme for chairing this event. I am honoured to be sharing a Panel with distinguished personalities like His Excellency Edward M. Turay, High Commissioner of Sierra Leone to the UK, Mr. George Hodgson, Head of Ebola Taskforce, Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Mr. Layne Robinson, Head of Youth Programmes Section, Commonwealth Secretariat.

As I bring you sad but warm greetings from the people of Sierra Leone struggling with a complex, extraordinary situation, please permit me upfront to pay special tribute to nurses, doctors and all those on the front-line fighting to prevent and stop Ebola. I wish to acknowledge the efforts of the government of President Ernest Bai Koroma, international community, media, civil society, youth, women, children, community groups, NGOs and companies helping to prevent and stop Ebola.

Gratitude from Sierra Leone:

I bring gratitude from Sierra Leone with the best wishes for a speedy recovery to British Volunteer Nurse Pauline Cafferkey currently recovering here in London from Ebola disease she contracted whilst helping our people in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leoneans are grateful for the splendid assistance by Britain in our fight against Ebola. British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Mr. Peter West travels with President Koroma nationwide reinforcing to local populace that Britain stands with us. President Koroma has been widely commended locally and internationally for his social mobilisation efforts that have seen him move from district to district, preaching the message of how to end Ebola in the communities. He has been cajoling, begging, appealing and sometimes wielding the big stick enough to threaten; all so as to get the citizens to understand the gravity of what was unfolding in the country. And at every step of the way, right by the President’s side has been the British Envoy giving moral support to the President’s message. This means a lot to our folks especially in the provincial areas. At this pivotal point in time, Britain could not have had a better diplomatic representation in Sierra Leone than that being provided by Mr. Peter West. We are grateful.

Ebola is a Global Threat

Indeed, we are grateful for the assistance being poured into the country from all around the world but I am not just here to express thanks. Martin Luther King Jnr. famously said:

• “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

Mr. Chairman, Ladies & gentlemen, let me paraphrase the great man's words by saying today that what Ebola has taught the World is that:

• “We cannot sit by idly in Freetown or London and not be concerned about what happens in Kissi Teng. A lack of health care anywhere is a threat to healthcare everywhere”.

I submit today that ignoring the health care needs of poverty-ridden remote parts of Africa is what has led to merciless spread of Ebola and which now threatens powerful modern cities across the world. The UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights pays close attention to the Right to Education whilst the right to Health Care has been subsumed under right to good standard of living. I submit and most strongly too, that Ebola has taught the World that the health of even the least citizen in remote villages in Africa, should be on as high a level as they put the importance of all the other universal human rights. A lack of health care anywhere is a threat to healthcare everywhere. I REPEAT, a lack of health care anywhere is a threat to healthcare everywhere.

Abysmal Healthcare

At the start of the Ebola crisis, out of 3,506 hospital beds in Sierra Leone, only 80 beds were to be found in the entire Kailahun district of which the entire Kissi chiefdoms had only a handful of hospital beds to serve a populace of tens of thousands of Kissi inhabitants. This was and remains unacceptable. That abysmal lack of health care for Kissi Teng and for many other remote communities in Northern Province, Southern Province, Eastern Province and even parts of the Western Area of Sierra Leone has become a threat to health care everywhere in the world today.
I came here to remind to help build a better future for Sierra Leone. I can stand here with confidence and say that we can and we will overcome Ebola and Sierra Leone will rise again. There are many issues to be addressed around Ebola but for this evening, I only have a few minutes so I will limit myself to urging you all address key issues that are central to that future – and those are the issues of Health care, quality Education, social empowerment, financial and employment improvement prospects and an inclusive political voice for young people whilst ensuring women’s voices are not left behind.

Our collective failure to meet many of these challenges – since independence – has allowed Ebola to overcome us. Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that Ebola has inflicted on our people. Sierra Leone government data indicates that 22% of those infected by Ebola are under the age of 17 years and almost 60% of those infected are under the age of 35 years. Whilst there is no significant difference in the number of women affected over men, data from recent government reports clearly indicates that the sectors in which women are mostly engaged are the ones that have been most affected. The impacts on women have therefore been of more consequence especially as they are the primary home care-givers.

Pre-Ebola Problems:

However, the problems for women and youth are not just a problem of the Ebola crisis. Put simply, these problems are our perennial deficit problem for decades. Pre-Ebola, our problems were already a great challenge. These are the facts. The evidence is out there. Nobody disputes them. We know we must reform this system. The question is how? The answer lies in ensuring our women and our youth have a voice in the governance of the country. There have been important roles for women and youth leadership in this crisis and after the crisis, a youth-led and women-led agenda will make Sierra Leone a better place.

There is a lot more to be done in Sierra Leone to ensure more women not only get into governance high offices but are protected when they reach there. Our gender credentials unfortunately leave a lot to be desired. For example, we only have ONE woman as a full Cabinet Minister for now. The President must keep to his campaign promises to empower more women and give them greater influence in governance at the highest levels. Token appointments are no longer tenable. We need more women in Cabinet and in Government and when appointed to high offices, they should be protected by the President.

Stunning Empowerment of Youths:

In sharp contrast, I am very proud to say today that the leadership of His Excellency President Ernest Bai Koroma has been simply inspirational with respect to Youths. Mr. Layne Robinson has just announced that the findings of a recent Commonwealth commissioned global study placed Sierra Leone number ONE in terms of Youths participation in civil governance issues. However, Mr. Robinson tells us that though the Commonwealth was impressed, they just could not explain how come Sierra Leone could beat all other countries and come out first in terms of Youths Involvement in having a say in the day to day governance. Well, I can provide the answer for the Commonwealth tonight. The answer is simple and can be accredited to just one simple reason; the spectacular leadership which President Ernest Bai Koroma has shown in his empowerment of our youths. As I seat here, the Chairman of the all-powerful Board of our National Revenue Authority is a young and brilliant lawyer under the age of 35 years. He was elevated to such high appointment by President Koroma and there are many of such appointments of youths by the President. Every time the President makes such appointments, it creates a ripple effect amongst the entire youth citizenry and inspires more youths to aspire to be involved in governance. That, quite simply is why Sierra Leone scored that Number One position.

Moving from TRC Dismal Prospects

The President’s empowerment of Sierra Leone Youths is so far unprecedented in our History. The Ebola Outbreak occurred ten years after the publication of our Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report that had painted a dismal picture of prospects for youths. At the time of the Outbreak, prospects for youth’s development had significantly improved with the TRC’s imagery of hopelessness now transformed and youths of Sierra Leone now with a vivid resilience to take up their destiny and act out their responsibilities. Sierra Leone did not traditionally have youths participate in the national and district level development planning process. However, this government has established District Youth Councils to address this and I am happy to report that the youth councils are working. For example, Pujehun recently became the first district to go for 42 continuous days without recording a single Ebola case.

Shortly before leaving Sierra Leone, I engaged the Pujehun Youth Council and the Pujehun Youth Leader, Brima Fullah told me proudly that Pujehun youths were at the forefront of the recent success against Ebola in Pujehun as they were involved by the Local Government Chairman Saddiq Sillah in every facet of the fight at every level. This is inspirational and it shows the President’s leadership at the central level is being cascaded downwards to the local levels. I commend the leadership of Mr. Saddiq Sillah.

Up in the Northern Province, we had a district that went for months without recording a single case of Ebola. In that Koinadugu district, I have been happy to see youths come together and form themselves into units aimed at sensitising their communities, going from house to house in search of the sick being hidden and also manning checkpoints to ensure travellers are not moving around with high temperatures or symptoms of Ebola. These youths were not paid money by the Central government but under inspirational leadership of just a few adults, they turned themselves into volunteers inside Koinadugu and it worked for many months that they kept Ebola in abeyance.

So, in sharp contrast to the findings of the TRC, it is now clear that many youths of Sierra Leone, with the significant roles of youths-focussed civil society organisations, no longer see themselves as victims but as champions; having a sense of responsibility and undertaking initiatives in their communities of their own volition. Many admirable youth leaders have emerged to take up the forefront in ensuring youths no longer are in the state described in the TRC Report. However, even before Ebola, there were challenges and now Ebola threatens these bright prospects.

Emerging Socio-economic Challenges

As has been already highlighted eloquently by High Commissioner Edward Turay, IMF and World Bank reports have reported a drastic reduction in our GDP and economic growth indices which is predicted to continue to affect out hitherto admirable economic growths. The mining sector has seen a concomitant affliction made worse by the Ebola crisis.

Before Ebola, government statistics show that 60% of youths are unemployed. Youth unemployment remains a major challenge. Now with Ebola, the situation could be even worse as economics activities are being held in abeyance. Though our youths are buoyant and hopeful, their living standards are very poor. Majority of the youth live under a 1 pound a day. The economic power of the youth is minimal and now with Ebola, their plight is appalling.

Generally, Sierra Leone social indicators are among the lowest in the world with the government having just started to implement measures to ameliorate gender issues among the youth such as teenage pregnancy and sexual and reproductive health issues facing young girls. Ebola has affected the speed at which these issues were to have been addressed.

42% of Sierra Leoneans are under the age of 15 years and the youth population will continue to increase. These young people are currently all out of school as the Ebola crisis forced the closure of schools as precautionary measures.

So what next?

Sierra Leone's Deputy Health Minister recently stated that challenges of Post-Ebola rebuilding are bigger than that after the civil conflict. However to permanently overcome these challenges created by Ebola, the truth of the Ebola Outbreak has to be uncovered so clear lessons can be learnt and it never repeats.

I therefore urge all Sierra Leoneans and Friends of Sierra Leone to read an investigative piece in the New York Times of December 2014 entitled: How Ebola Roared Back. It is an eye-opener with lessons that we must learn from to ensure Ebola never returns.

Neglect led to merciless spread of Ebola. How did we neglect those people of Kissi Teng so badly? The conscience of the world has to be awakened. For every neglected chiefdom, inside Sierra Leone, there is the potential for another outbreak to run undetected in Sierra Leone. The consequence of such is simply unconscionable. A lack of healthcare in Kissi Teng is a threat to healthcare everywhere!
As President Koroma recently told Parliament, empowering young people is the route available to us to work our way out from the Socio-Economic Consequences of Ebola in Sierra Leone. Empowering young people means creating and supporting the enabling conditions under which young people can act on their own behalf and on their own terms, rather than in the direction of others. These enabling conditions fall in three broad categories:

- Political Empowerment
- Social Empowerment
- Economic Empowerment

These broad can be addressed by Economic empowerment of young people; Strengthening social support systems; Strengthening ministries/departments and the legal framework for youth; Promoting youth participation; Promoting positive role models; Action on gender equality; Promoting peaceful and democratic environments; Providing quality education for all; Improving access to ICT; Promoting health development through sports and culture; Engaging young people to protect the environment.

The Road Ahead | After Ebola

The government and international community are working to prevent and stop Ebola as we speak, but let's make one thing clear right here, right now. Affordable, national health care for every single Sierra Leonean must not be a question of whether, it must be a question of how. We have the ideas, we have the resources, and we must find the will to deliver improved health services to the people of Sierra Leone after Ebola. If factors are not addressed, we would see the recurrence of Ebola. And I reiterate that a lack of healthcare anywhere is a threat to healthcare everywhere.

It's time to act in the interest of our future which belongs to the Youth. Regardless of what combination of policies and proposals get us to this goal, we must reach it. Sierra Leone must act. And we must act boldly. The most important development for country is to not only to engage and empower the women but to also not leave the youths behind. Women make up half of the populace whilst the youth are not only future leaders but have proven they can be leaders of today who are able to help us work our way out of poverty and make Sierra Leone a better nation. Clearly, as shown in their sense of responsibilities emerging, the youth can no longer afford inaction from our generation of adults. They are taking up responsibilities themselves without any funding. They are proving they have the power and skills to shape history of Sierra Leone and so the World needs to now step up and support them.

The time for waiting is over. The days of our unproductive commitment must come to a close. The need to bring this Ebola to an end is here and the signs are very clear that the outbreak is drawing to a slow but sure end. And we must all together with youth and women, come to plan ahead and be prepared to tackle the challenges posed in the Post Ebola era.

Free basic education is already in place by this Government. However, the free primary education needs to be enforced; every child must be in school, no child should be left behind in the street and this includes providing support and education for Ebola orphans. I believe that education is a RIGHT for everyone and only education and better health can prevent the recurrence of Ebola. With education, the people of Kissi Teng and other parts of the country would not have been so ready to attribute the new disease to superstitious origins like snakes and witchcraft planes.

Recalibrate Agenda for Prosperity

It is my firm belief that the responsible course of action - for Sierra Leone and its development partners is to further recalibrate the existent Agenda for Prosperity which already provides the perfect pathway to make Sierra Leone a better country. It is based on a poverty-reduction platform. The recent State of the Nation Address to Parliament by President highlighted bright prospects for development of both Youths and Women in Sierra Leone but to implement them is going to need significant support and sincerity from all actors. This is where strong local and international partnerships will come in.

In Conclusion

Very soon, with Ebola crisis declared over, the world media will turn their attention elsewhere. How do we as Sierra Leoneans and Friends of Sierra Leone continue the efforts to keep our issues in focus so that the bright prospects especially for Youths do not get lost in the emerging consequences of a Post-Ebola Sierra Leone? These are our challenges in the midst of our prospects.

I thank you for your attention so far.


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