Liberia’s Ebola Crisis Puts President in Harsh Light

Liberia’s Ebola Crisis Puts President in Harsh Light

The president waited until her family members were seated around the dining table before announcing, with no fanfare, the latest defection from her cabinet.

“I lost my justice minister today,” she said, picking up a spoon before heading out to visit Ebola treatment units.

As the table erupted with questions, the president, having said all that she intended to, finished up her lunch of Libby’s tinned corned beef and rice — the Liberian equivalent of ramen noodles — and rose.

“We’re late,” she announced, not mentioning that everyone had been waiting for her for four hours. “Let’s go, let’s go.”

For the last eight years, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 76, has walked a precarious political tightrope. As Liberia’s first elected leader after a devastating civil war, she has juggled enemies and allies while pushing this country on its first sustained course of economic growth in decades.
Now, Ebola has brought many of those gains to a screeching halt. The foreign investors so lovingly wooed by Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, a former World Bank bureaucrat, have fled. Today, ordinary Liberians on the street fling around the obscure phrase “force majeure” to describe why businesses have closed, employers have left and road construction has ended.

Public schools, in a country where less than 50 percent of primary-school-age children were enrolled, have been shut for months. The World Bank warns that Ebola could slash Liberia’s fragile economy by nearly 12 percent. All but two foreign airlines, which Ms. Johnson Sirleaf had proudly welcomed back to the country after two decades of isolation, stopped flying here.

“Right now, all the international attention is on Ebola,” she said of critics, including at the United Nations, who say she has been more worried about the economy than a health catastrophe. “If we don’t focus on our economy, we will not be able to sustain it when they are gone.”

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