Fombah Sirleaf Provides Cogent COVID-19 Advisory -Building on Ebola Lessons Learned

The name Fombah Sirleaf most often resonates locally, regionally, continentally and globally with security sector reforms and global leadership expertise. The West Point graduate and former Health Physics technician at the University of Pennsylvania, who once served as Operations and Training Officer for the Armed Forces of Liberia, as well as former Security Analyst for the transitional government, during the week shared his vast experience garnered from navigating through tough national security terrains to emergency Ebola response. As The Analyst has gathered from an Adapt + Overcome podcast, the gems of knowledge issued by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s former principal security intel advisor could come in handy, especially as Liberia joins the global community in combatting the deadly Coronavirus pandemic.

When the deadly Ebola virus hit Liberia in 2014, Mr. Fombah Sirleaf saw himself playing leadership role, working with local health authorities and practitioners, as well as the United States Government military mission sent to Liberia to contain the Ebola virus.

According to Mr. Sirleaf, as with the Ebola virus, health care and social workers deployed on the frontlines for the first time to contain the Coronavirus pandemic must build on lessons learned from the past and copy those examples that helped to contain the spread of the deadly virus. Those experiences, said Fombah, will always come in handy during the ongoing fight against COVID-19.

“I think initially, before you go into any stressful combat and situation like the COVID-19, you have to rely on and understand first that you have had good training, maybe some of the best in the world, which you can rely on. There is also the leadership and guidance one can get either from the doctors or those within the chain of command to go ahead and do the work. I think what I can stress more importantly is to rely on the training, keep a calm and cool head, and it should get you through,” Sirleaf cautioned health and social workers fighting to contain the Coronavirus pandemic in Liberia.

One of the things that helped Fombah Sirleaf to cope with the stress of combating the Ebola virus, which can be vital in the fight against COVID-19, is for those in the frontlines to always rely on the network of support systems.

“A lot of it has to do with being able to emote some of those inner fears – feelings, conflicts that you have within yourself. It is important to talk, to engage, to learn from shared experiences, and I think that what could get you through is being with your colleagues, your subordinates, you can look to anyone to obtain clarity in terms of your work and what you have to do,” Mr. Sirleaf averred.

Recounting lessons learned during the Ebola fight which left an indelible imprint in his mind, Mr. Sirleaf recalled a particular incident involving a young female health worker.

“In 2014 there was a young nursing student in a small town outside of Monrovia which is Kakata, and her name was Salomie Kawah. This young lady, even in the midst of the Ebola pandemic was working. With no resources she was able to take care of her father and mother who were extremely sick at the time. This young woman had resorted to using garbage bags and shopping bags to fashion PPE for herself to care for her sick parents. Eventually she did contract the Ebola Virus, but she managed to survive. And in spite of the fact that she lost her parents, she still went on to volunteer with MSF (Doctors without Borders) at one of the centers in Monrovia. And even despite of her loss that could have held her back, she said that the only thing that was moving her forward was her belief that if she could not help her parents, maybe at least she could help someone else. Maybe that was the greatest motivating factor for her. And she was even named in 2014 as a Time Magazine Person of the Year,” said Sirleaf.

The fear of losing someone dear; the agony of caring for patients whose ability to recover does not lie in the realm of science, but basically through faith and resolve; the frustrations of working in environments combating a deadly pandemic without the common basic medical supplies and financial incentives – all of these play serious part in increasing trauma among health care workers.
Giving his expert opinion on the trauma associated with dealing with such global pandemic as COVID-19, Mr. Sirleaf had this to say:

“I think there are no particular resources that I may have personally, but I think there’s a lot out there. There are lots of groups you can deal, such as the nurses association, the veteran association or people you work with or outside you job cycle. You can go to your colleagues, your friends, and your family and they can provide strong resource. You can start talking about some of these issues, and I really do believe that you have to talk about them. People talk about ‘you shouldn’t be afraid’… you should be afraid. There is nothing wrong with that – there is nothing wrong to have feelings, and there is nothing wrong to express your feelings; there is nothing wrong to express your emotions. You know people have the belief that soldiers don’t cry; but sometimes crying can be a good remedy in stressful situations.”

Perhaps for many who might have seen him as this overly tough military guy, Fombah Sirleaf says his solid rock of faith especially during deployment has always been his Bible.

“I think the one thing that could give me comfort is my Bible. I can say I always travel. Anytime I travel, I always have a small copy of the New Testament with me. That has always served me well,” he said.

Touching back on his advisory for health workers in the forefront of combatting the Coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Sirleaf says Liberia needs their leadership more than ever before as they face a real war but with an unseen enemy.

“I think the advice I have for them, given the circumstances we find ourselves, as so many before us have come to defend and protect this country, that made sacrifices, especially for our armed services – is that the country needs you more than ever. Because this is really a war and they are the ones who are on the frontlines now. We are depending on them to fight for the very essence of the society. But I am sure with their training, with their great leadership skills, Liberia will prevail,” Sirleaf stated optimistically.

An enduring military mantra is “Adapt and Overcome.” This is a rallying cry for unforeseen challenges and life’s curve balls, and a reminder that circumstances will not defeat us. The ADAPT+OVERCOME podcast combines military veteran experiences, business acumen, and the human spirit for potent solutions to real-world challenges. The series is produced by The Human Impact Studio of TA Group Holdings, a veteran-owned firm.

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