At the height of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, despite desperate need, bureaucratic red tape slowed the delivery of much needed supplies and equipment. It was frustrating and inexcusable, but, of course, there were plenty of excuses to go around. Despite that, here is a good news story, one that I think should serve as an example of how to get things done right and done quickly when a crisis strikes in somewhere in the world.
Gbowee Peace Foundation + Medshare Partnership
This is a story of a partnership between a U.S.-based non-profit and a Liberian-based Foundation. It is the story of MedShare, an amazing organization that collects unwanted, but still good, medical supplies and equipment from hospitals and manufacturers and redistributes them, on order, to hospitals and clinics in need in both the developing world and in the US. It is also the story of a remarkable woman, Madame Leymah Gbowee, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner and her Monrovia-based Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa. It is the story of listening, learning, quick response, and a true partnership between a locally-based organization and one on the other side of the world. Full disclosure, I am not an unbiased observer. I am honored to be a part of MedShare, serving on the Council of the Western Region, located in San Leandro, California.
I am also lucky indeed as I got to interview Andy Pines, Executive Director of MedShare’s Western Region, and Madame Gbowee during her recent visit to San Francisco. Here is the video (enjoy):
Here Is An Abbreviated Transcript of The Interview:
PS: Welcome, Madame Gbowee. Most people think that Liberia has been Ebola-free for a while and that’s the end of it. But, you have a different perspective.
LG: I am glad that it has been over a week and we haven’t had any new cases of Ebola in Liberia. But there here are two factors to consider. In 2014, the Ebola virus started around March. We did not see an outbreak of the virus until June and July and people may wonder why. It’s because June and July are the mid point of the rainy season in Liberia. And, we understand that the virus really thrives in moist areas. Also Liberia has many border entries points with Guinea, Sierra Leone and Guinea and Sierra Leone haven’t gone to zero yet. So we can’t be very enthusiastic and relaxed because Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are so connected. It is like saying your tongue is aching, your tooth is aching, and then your leg is saying I am whole. So we can’t really relax and say that the virus is over. I encourage my fellow Liberians to be very cautious between now and September. If we hit September and we don’t see the kind of outbreak we saw last year in the peak of the rainy season, then we can actually be joyful that we have gone to zero.
PS: I know that MedShare partnered with Madame Gbowee during the height of the epidemic to get supplies in. Can you tell us a bit about how that happened?
AP: Medshare had already sent three containers [of supplies to Liberia] in the past. They were sponsored by Chevron and were sent to Redemption Hospital, JFK Hospital, and St Joe’s Hospital in Monrovia. So we were fairly familiar [with the area]. When Ebola hit, we called them up and asked what can we do to help. They were all helpful, particularly Deddeh Howard from Chevron who put us in touch with Madame Gbowee. Thankfully, it turned out to be a wonderful partnership. The Gbowee Foundation Africa was incredibly helpful and responsive. Piso Saydee-Tarr, the director, told us exactly what they needed. Because time was of the essence, we teamed up with a company called AirLink that provided cargo space. Because of that partnership, we were were able to get supplies, particularly the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that were so badly needed, into the communities where it was most important on the front lines, like the West Point slum area. We got that PPE into those hands as quickly as possible with three airlifts and, ultimately, one ocean container. As a result, I think we played some role in arresting the development of Ebola.
PS: Let’s hope that the Ebola epidemic will indeed be over. How do you see, Madame Gbowee, organizations like MedShare working together with your Foundation, or people in Liberia, to do the best we can, so that a really big epidemic like this doesn’t happen again?
LG: Let me step back and talk about the partnership we have with MedShare. When the Ebola virus struck, the Foundation was really clear that we needed to tackle this in every way. And, we knew that community-based organizations that would not necessarily benefit from large grants from donors because they didn’t have all of the requirements, like bank accounts, office space, and all of these things. But they were very crucial to the fight. These were the people were that we were working with.
Once the partnership with MedShare was sealed, we were happy because then we were able to go to small clinics that were taking care of the health needs of people. At the peak of the Ebola virus, because these tiny clinics did not have PPEs, mothers were dying as they were tried to give birth, children were dying from simple things like high fevers, and different things people were dying from. So you had the Ebola virus killing people in communities and you also had people dying from preventable illnesses. Once the supplies and partnership with MedShare was rolling, we were able now to distribute these things to small community clinics, to keep people healthy, to be able to deal with some of the issues that we had not been able to deal with.
I see this partnership with MedShare as a fantastic partnership that can lead into the future, leading into the question that you just asked. They didn’t come with a Marshall Plan for us, they came with what we needed. They were comfortable with us saying this is what we need. And, they were able to provide those things for us. We know our context, we know the communities, and we know what the needs are. Moving forward in the future, I think coming back to the table to have a dialog, not only with the healthcare providers, but also with the people who benefit, foundations like ours and people in the communities. Then, sitting and saying [what can we do] beyond a container that provides some of the basic [supplies]? How can we look at long term infrastructure development? How can we forge a partnership which takes us to the place where we want the healthcare infrastructure in Liberia? Personally, that is my interest and I am really looking forward to a continuous partnership with MedShare.
MedShare’s Impact in West Africa
The partnership with the Gbowee Foundation was just a part of MedShare’s overall efforts to get supplies into West Africa.