Interview with Bintou Keita, UN’s Ebola Crisis Manager in Sierra Leone
July 16, 2015
Q. Since September 2014 when UNMEER was established up to the present time that you are winding down, how would you characterise UNMEER’s story so far?
Definitely we have made some progress. When we were first established, there were people saying, ‘Why are you establishing UNMEER? What is the added value of UNMEER? What difference could UNMEER make?’ But now, you hear questions such as ‘Why is UNMEER leaving when the fight is not yet ended? We are not yet at zero. You are abandoning us?’ Overall, you can see that UNMEER has shown to the public, international partners, donors, the government, particularly the National Ebola Response Centre (NERC), that it has its own relevance.
Q. Specifically, what kinds of support has UNMEER been providing?
I will start with the ramping up of the mission, where logistics were provided for WFP to do forward logistics – vehicles and helicopter flights transporting people and goods to places where they are required. UNMEER has also facilitated response surges at different times. We provided expertise in different areas, including case management, contact tracing, safe and dignified burials, social mobilization, community engagement and communication — these experts were embedded within the Pillars of the national response.
Another added value has been the Field Crises Managers in all the districts who had strong input on what and how things were carried out in the districts. They all played their roles. Even though they are no longer in the districts, it is interesting that, again, people are requesting us to send back the Field Crisis Managers. It is the same situation with the Information Management Officers who were in the districts.
Q. Regarding transportation, what do you think the situation could have been without UNMEER’s support?
Answer. I think it would have strangled the operation. Although other partners and donors were coming up with vehicles, UNMEER’s vehicles came from other Missions within the UN family and had the capability to operate on all terrains. The vehicles provided the NERC some level of empowerment.
Q. How would you describe UNMEER’s relationship with the government and people of Sierra Leone?
It is a very good relationship, a trusted relationship, in the sense that they see us as honest workers. As you know, in any operation, there are different dynamics going on and we are seen as an institution where anyone can come and share ideas and see something followed through; where there is a feedback loop and better outcomes than if we were not there.
Q. What challenges has UNMEER faced over the months?
I would say, first, within the U.N family, having to harness the collective will without direct reporting relationship and accountability means that you really have to exert persuasion and convince people to come along. And then for the donors, although they want more effective coordination, some also resist providing information and there are sometimes different views among themselves.
And some of the challenges have to do sometimes with speaking out. It’s not always welcome but we have to speak out. It has been a challenge but it is now established that UNMEER can speak out.
Q. How effectively have you coordinated with other UN Agencies, Programmes and Funds?
To be honest, I have very good team members who are able, in their respective areas, to work with UN colleagues. Also, I have a good overview of the entire response and then we hold meetings for the UN agencies every Monday. Every Tuesday, there is another dedicated meeting with our development partners. And we expanded to include the International NGOs, because they were feeling they were not sufficiently part of the response, that they were seen more as implementers rather than partners. I think we somehow managed to shift that around and the arrival also of OCHA to the UN family increased the ability to coordinate and to communicate with the INGOs.
Q. What would you say to Sierra Leoneans and others who are nervous about UNMEER winding down?
UNMEER is drawing down for sure. It’s a reality. However, the country is in a much better shape today to respond to the virus. Compared to last year when there were 200, 300 or more cases per week, we are now having single and double digits cases. Last week we had eight cases. We have a number of households under quarantine but now we have reflected, we learned lessons, and we are improving the experience of people under quarantine.
We have in total five chains of transmission in the country compared to numerous numbers last year. All in all, we have about 10 patients in Ebola Treatment Units. Sierra Leoneans can be assured that with NERC and partners, the DERC, and with this last Operation Northern Push, and the safeguards in place for Western Area, the country is moving in the right direction.
Q. Has there been a day when you felt very happy during this period?
Like a number of citizens in the country, that was when we had the series of zeros. At the time, I was hoping for a continued downward trend. But at the same time I think it was just an illusion because we knew we had a number of transmission chains going on and many contacts being monitored.
Q. What message do you have for Sierra Leoneans?
That nature is challenging because the virus is coming from nature and it has traumatized families, communities and the nation. But also that the nation is definitely winning. In a few months everyone can start healing and rebuilding the country.
Q. You are optimistic that Ebola will be kicked out in a few months?
In a few months, yes, Ebola can be kicked out if we all do our part. The good part is that a huge percentage of the population know it’s doable because they have done it. We are now dealing with few chiefdoms in Kamba and Port Loko and parts of Western Area.