Getting to Zero: A Doctor and a Diplomat on the Ebola Frontline

Blavatnik School of Government, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6GG
Open to the public
This event is free – register below to attend
February 2019
Book talk

In 2014, Oliver Johnson, a 28-year old British doctor found himself co-running the Ebola isolation unit in Sierra Leone’s main hospital after the doctor in charge had been killed by the virus. Completely overwhelmed and wrapped in stifling protective suits, he and his team took it in turns to provide care to patients while removing dead bodies from the ward. Against all odds he battled to keep the hospital open, as the queue of sick and dying patients grew every day.

Only a few miles down the road Dr Sinead Walsh, the Irish Ambassador and Head of Irish Aid, worked relentlessly to rapidly scale up the international response. At a time when entire districts had been quarantined, she travelled around the country, and met with UN agencies, the President and senior ministers so as to be better placed in alerting the world to the catastrophe unfolding in front of her.

In this event, they will talk about their book Getting to Zero, a blow-by-blow account that exposes the often shocking shortcomings of the humanitarian response to the outbreak, both locally and internationally, and call our attention to the immense courage of those who put their lives on the line every day to contain the disease. Informed by over eighty interviews and two hundred written reports, they draw out five key lessons for the future, which Dr Sinead Walsh is now applying first-hand in her new role as EU Ambassador to South Sudan, a country that neighbours the current DRC Ebola Outbreak.

The event will be moderated by Nikolas Kirby, Research Fellow in Philosophy and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government.

Speaker biographies

Dr Sinead Walsh is the EU Ambassador to South Sudan. She has worked for Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade since 2009. She was a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative in 2016/17. Prior to this, she served as the Ambassador of Ireland to Sierra Leone and Liberia and the Head of Irish Aid in the two countries, based in Freetown from 2011 to 2016. 

When Ebola struck, Sinead had been in Freetown for three years as Irish Ambassador and the Head of Irish Aid. She threw herself into efforts to raise the alarm and rapidly scale up the response. Through media interviews and urgent briefings over the phone to Dublin, Brussels, Geneva and New York, she worked to alert the world to the growing catastrophe. 

Dr Oliver Johnson is a visiting lecturer in global health at King’s College London. He was based in Freetown from 2013 to 2015 working as the Director of the King’s Sierra Leone Partnership and was awarded an OBE in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours in recognition of his leadership role in the British response to the Ebola outbreak.

Oliver and his team supported the management of more than 578 confirmed cases of Ebola in Connaught Hospital, as well as the establishment of the Freetown Command Centre and Ebola isolation units at 6 government hospitals, which saw 2,571 suspected cases, of which 1159 were positive.

The talk will be livestreamed and recorded on the Blavatnik School of Government YouTube channel.