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COVID-19 Is Here. Now Is the Time to Lead.
April 13, 2020

Photo of Suraphel Alemu


Growing up in Jimma, Ethiopia, Dr. Suraphel Alemu was a child full of energy and enthusiasm about the world around him.

“I was always interested in stories,” Suraphel says.

Now a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow and founder of Doctors in Action, Suraphel is working to empower doctors and create social change. His efforts to promote context-based, community-driven solutions to inequities in health care have become increasingly relevant with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are inviting Ethiopians to join the fight against COVID-19 by protecting essential frontline responders, instituting safe workplaces through the adoption of WHO guidelines, and engaging medical staff in accurate and timely communications on the disease,” Suraphel says.

Among the myths Suraphel has heard about the pandemic include that the virus resulted from a laboratory accident. It’s myths like these that sow discord and confusion. It’s up to young leaders, Suraphel explains, to challenge and correct this misinformation.

“Others say COVID-19 is a population-reduction scheme,” Suraphel says. “Dispelling these myths means staying informed using credible sources and not shying away from conversations about the virus.”

For Suraphel, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and to the needs of his community members came easily, and stems from his early interest in public health.

“I was sitting in my office at a primary hospital in rural Ethiopia when I realized that waiting for patients to travel many kilometers to reach a hospital that lacked equipment was a waste of time and energy; the hospital was costing the community instead of serving it,” Suraphel says.

“At our hospital, we always talked about how health was where people lived, not where they went when they got sick.”

It’s Suraphel’s insistence on local, community-driven solutions that forms the throughline of his work and enables him to reach and support people across the state in the face of a global pandemic.

“It reminds me of the Carl Jung quote: ‘That which you most need will be found where you least want to look,’” Suraphel says.

Today Suraphel is drawing on local resources to flatten the COVID-19 curve, working with partners across the state to get people the treatment they so desperately need.

“The courage to take initiative is where leadership starts for me,” Suraphel says. “The first step is usually the hardest, but it’s that step that makes the difference between the leaders and the rest of the pack.”

This blog post is part of a series developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about slowing the spread of the coronavirus here and visit our YALICares page to find out more about promoting a healthier Africa.

The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author or interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.