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'We can control Ebola here, by helping Africa'

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'We can control Ebola here, by helping Africa'
Gabriel Wikström at a press briefing on ebola in October 2014. Photo: TT
10:12 CET+01:00
The Local meets the face of Sweden's Ebola crisis team, the country's new 29-year-old Public Health Minister, Gabriel Wikström.
Plunged into his first ministerial post just as one of the biggest health crises in Africa for decades spread into Europe, the man overseeing Sweden’s world-renowned healthcare system has got a lot on his plate.
 
In the three weeks since he was appointed, the number of Ebola scares in Sweden has reached double figures, although as yet no cases have been confirmed.
 
"We are working round-the-clock to see that we have good preparation in Sweden in case we get Ebola," says Gabriel Wikström as we sit on two yellow striped armchairs in his modest office, just across the bridge from Sweden’s parliament.
 
"But the best disease control we can have in Sweden is really to help the west African countries that are already affected," he adds.
 

Gabriel Wikström talks about the ebola crisis. Video: The Local
 
Sweden’s new Social Democrat-Green coalition initially faced strong criticism from international aid agencies and charities, who accused one of Europe’s richest countries of standing on the sidelines as its Nordic neighbours sent increasing numbers of doctors to fight the crisis in west Africa and boosted their financial contributions.
 
Not any more. Sweden is now the fifth largest donor in the world after Gabriel Wikström revealed earlier this month that it would invest an additional 100 million kronor ($13.89 million), taking its overall spending to around 240 million kronor.
 
The move led to Prime Minister Stefan Löfven getting a call from US President Barack Obama to discuss ways to combat the ongoing epidemic.
 
Over the weekend the country pledged a further $15 million to the UN’s global Ebola fund.
 
"We need to make a common stand," says Wikström.
 
"I can't give you any details, but we are speaking to other countries - to try and co-operate with others."
 
 

Sierra Leone is one of the west African countries gripped by the crisis. Photo: Michael Duff
 
Part of the money set aside by Wikström is being used to help Swedish hospitals send more medical volunteers to affected countries, while maintaining services in Sweden.
 
Wikström won’t be drawn on how many doctors have signed up since his key announcement on boosting Sweden’s spending, which came as reports suggested just five Swedish specialists were treating patients in west Africa.
 
But he insists his strategy is "working quite well actually" and says he is also in regular contact with health agencies and Swedish experts who have been "on the ground" in Liberia or Sierra Leone.
 
"As a politician you can’t just sit in your office and think that you don’t need any local information," he stresses.
 

Gabriel Wikström sparked a Twitter storm earlier this month. Photo: TT
 
If you don’t usually follow Swedish politics, but Wikström’s face looks familiar, it might be because his photo went viral earlier this month after it was tweeted by a user in Turkey. The minister gained thousands of fans, many of them teenage girls posting emoticon hearts and offering to marry him. 
 
After Wikström then wrote a message in Turkish thanking his new followers, the story went global and received media coverage on every continent.
 
While the Swedish press tends to respect politicians’ private lives, Wikström found himself facing a barrage of questions from international media about his relationship status, right in the middle of divorce proceedings.
 
"Me and my wife separated at the beginning of this year," he confirms to The Local. 
 
"We are good friends, if you want to write that down," he adds genuinely.
 
Wikström says he is flattered by the social media attention, but he is clearly keen to separate the stir from his Ebola duties.
 
So does he regret boosting the hype with his own Turkish tweet?
 
"No absolutely not, because I also think that I have a responsibility as a young politician, to reach out to young people around the world - especially in those countries where it is not that usual to be young and in government…and in some sense [to] be a role model”.
 

Gabriel Wikström used to be the leader of the Social Democrat Party's youth wing. Photo: TT
 
Wikström's age and relative inexperience led one columnist in Sweden to describe him as the government's "least safe bet", arguing that a "29-year-old without an education" is unqualified for a complex brief like health. But Wikström insists he is fully equipped to handle the Ebola crisis for Sweden.
 
"I was doing national politics for at least three years before I became a Minister," he says.
 
A former head of Sweden’s Social Democratic Youth League, he argues that he cut his political teeth at a time when his party was "dealing with a lot of internal crises".
 
"I wouldn’t compare that to an Ebola crisis, but at least I have a high level of awareness in what do do in a crisis," he says.
 
It is an answer that has a whiff of a first job interview response, when a candidate is forced to rely on examples of teamwork or communication from the sports field.
 
But the charismatic Wikström seems confident about his brief, which also happens to include his country’s sport policies.
 
The last person to sit in his office in the afternoon ahead of our meeting was the Chair of the Swedish Olympic Committee. 
 
Wikström says he is excited that he should get a chance to go to Rio in 2016 and says he especially keen to to spend time learning about the different Paralympic sports ahead of his visit.
 
In the meantime, he remains on call 24/7 and says he gets telephoned each time there is a suspected Ebola case in his country.
 
"At the moment the threat isn’t really big in Sweden," he stresses.
 
"But I have daily briefings on the situation, both on what is happening in west Africa and what we are doing here in Sweden when it comes to how many places we have in hospitals and what are our possibilities to cope….in case of one or three or more cases."
 
"We want to make sure people are safe."
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