Zed talks with former ambassador Sinead Walsh and Dr Oliver Johnson OBE, authors of Getting to Zero, on their experiences managing the response to the West Africa Ebola crisis.
Written by Laurence Radford
What made you decide to write Getting to Zero?
Sinead: Funnily enough I had no intention of writing about Ebola! I had recently finished my PhD after five years part-time and the last thing I wanted to do is start another big writing project. But the early literature that started coming out about Ebola in 2015 just didn’t seem to resonate with what I had experienced. Oliver and I ran into each other by chance one Sunday morning at a yoga retreat and ended up having a long conversation during which I found out that he felt exactly the same. That’s how the idea for the book was born.
Oliver: For me, the idea first came up in the middle of the outbreak, on a UK military flight from RAF Brize Norton to Freetown. I’d been asked to brief a visiting British Government minister on the plane, and found myself sat next to the BBC Global Health Correspondent, Tulip Mazumdar, and her camera crew. They spent the flight encouraging me to write about my experiences, but I wasn’t convinced about the idea. As with Sinead though, when I later started to read the initial accounts of what happened, I realized that if I wanted to make sure the true story, as I had experienced it, was captured then I’d have to write something.
What did you uncover in the process of writing Getting to Zero, something you weren’t expecting?
Oliver: I was really struck by the number of instances when the actions of a single person made a big difference to how the outbreak played out, for better or for worse. Often this was when someone – be they a community health worker or an international politician – took leadership despite the risks, and in doing so saved many lives. But there were also many instances where courage or convictions were sadly lacking, meaning that power was abused or action wasn’t taken, and that had devastating consequences.
Tell us why Getting to Zero is so important to a global audience.
Sinead: The lessons we learnt during the crisis are widely applicable: from how vital it was to engage affected communities regarding how to deal with the crisis in their own locality, to how the response was undermined by ‘preexisting conditions’ in terms of how governance in Sierra Leone and the international aid sector worked (or didn’t work). These lessons do not just apply for emergencies, but also for long-term development in all of our countries. We really want to bring these lessons out so that, when readers are faced with the same issues themselves, they can be better equipped than we were going into the crisis.
How did you each tackle sitting down to actually write about your experiences?
Sinead: I took a year off work to work on the book and I tended to work on the book seven days a week. I think I felt a lot of pressure because the Ebola crisis was so huge and so many things had happened with so many different people involved that I was anxious that we represent things accurately and cross-check our experiences with others. So I read hundreds of documents about the crisis and interviewed dozens of people and this helped me to feel comfortable enough to write my story.
Oliver: I struggled a lot with writing the book and it took me a long time to develop a rhythm. I think partly this was because it involved dredging through some very dark memories and powerful emotions, many of which I still hadn’t come to terms with. I’m also intuitively more of an oral storyteller and I also struggled to focus on the same thing for a long time. In the end though, it all came together when I took a day off a week from my job, created a workspace on my dining table in Johannesburg and learnt to leave my phone in another room so I could shut out distractions.