Washington — US President Joe Biden on Monday named Dr. Raj Panjabi to lead the U.S. President's Malaria Initiative (PMI).
Mr. Panjabi's grandparents were refugees from Sindh Province following the British Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, resettling in Mumbai and Indore in India. A generation later, Panjabi's parents migrated to West Africa, where Panjabi was born and raised in Monrovia, Liberia. After civil war broke out in Liberia in 1989, Panjabi, at age nine, and his family fled on a rescue cargo plane to Sierra Leone and eventually sought asylum in the United States, resettling initially with a host family in High Point, North Carolina.
The ascendance of Dr. Punjabi is likely to resurrect debate over Liberia's controversial citizenhip laws which confers nationality solely on the basis of race.
'Racist Clause' Controversy
Upon assuming the presidency in January 2018, President George Weah called for the removal of what he described as a "racist" clause in the constitution which restricts citizenship to black people.
Under the current Liberian constitution, only persons of black African origins may obtain citizenship, although Liberian law allows members of other races to hold permanent residency status. Within Liberia itself, the wider implications of the policy are part of a heated debate in which some native Liberians themselves have acknowledged that non-black African permanent residents are crucial contributors to the country's economic activities and innovation system, mainly the Lebanese community.
Features of the first constitution that have been upheld include: Article V, Section 13 of the 1847 Constitution which states: "The great object of forming these Colonies, being to provide a home for the dispersed and oppressed children of Africa, and to regenerate and enlighten this benighted continent, none but persons of colour shall be eligible to citizenship in this Republic." The phrasing "persons of colour" was changed to "Negroes or persons of Negro descent" in a 1955 revision.
The Liberian legislature was charged with establishing criteria for naturalization. All applicants must be black Africans to be naturalized.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, Liberia has a stateless population in large part due to the high numbers of women who fled the country during its civil wars from 1989 to 2003 and gave birth to children, during their time in exile, with foreigners. "In Liberia, this has left an estimated 4,000 children inside Liberia potentially stateless and nearly 3,200 children outside the country potentially stateless; but the number could be higher. Without a nationality, many of these children cannot go to school, receive medical care or travel freely outside of the country," according to the UNHCR.
The December 2020 referendum which fell short of passage, only sought to amend Article 28 of the constitution seeking to grant citizenship automatically if both parents were Liberian citizens at the time of their birth.
The amendments proposed require only one parent to be a Liberian citizen, removes the ability of the government to legislate to remove citizenship of natural born citizens and prohibits citizens with dual citizenship from holding senior positions, including justices of the Supreme Court, ministerial positions, heads of government agencies, ambassadorships and the chief of staff and deputy chief of staff of the military.
'Grateful for Chance to Serve'
In social media posts Monday, Dr. Punjabi trumpeted his Liberia ties.
Dr. Punjabi wrote:
After being sworn in this morning, I'm honored to share that I've been appointed by President Biden as the President's Malaria Coordinator to lead the U.S. President's Malaria Initiative (PMI). I'm grateful for this chance to serve.
My family and I arrived in America 30 years ago after fleeing civil war in Liberia. A community of Americans rallied around my family to help us build back our lives. It's an honor to serve the country that helped build back my own life as part of the Biden-Harris Administration. In the face of unprecedented crises, I am humbled by the challenges our country and our world faces to build back better. But as I have learned in America: we are not defined by the conditions we face, we are defined by how we respond.
As a doctor and public health professional that has cared for patients alongside local health workers, Ministry of Health officials and staff at the President's Malaria Initiative, US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and our partners, I've been inspired by how they've responded to fight malaria, one of the oldest and deadliest pandemics, and saved lives around the world. As it is for many of my colleagues, this mission is personal for me. My grandparents and parents were infected with malaria while living in India. As a child in Liberia, I fell sick with malaria, and as a doctor serving in Africa, I have seen this disease take too many lives.
I've seen how PMI and its partners have responded, with resolve, in the countries where it operates. I've seen the relief on the faces of parents whose children survived malaria because they were treated with medicines and by health workers backed by its support. And I've seen how these investments to fight malaria can strengthen health systems where they are weak -- helping stop other epidemics at their source and keeping us all safer.
I'm privileged to serve with and learn from the teams at PMI, USAID, CDC and our partners. Together, we will fight malaria. We will save lives. We will build health systems. And, together, we will work to eliminate malaria once and for all.
Dr. Panjabi graduated with bachelor and medical degrees from the University of North Carolina School at Chapel Hill and received a Masters of Public Health in epidemiology from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He was a Clinical Fellow at Harvard Medical School, and trained in internal medicine and primary care at the Massachusetts General Hospital.
In the United States, Panjabi trained and worked as a clinical provider in community health systems in rural Alaska, North Carolina and Massachusetts.
Co-Chaired Panel with Ex-President Sirleaf
Dr. Punjabi is the co-founder and CEO of Last Mile Health. Panjabi serves as Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital Beck Visiting Social Innovator at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
In July 2020, Panjabi was appointed Advisor to former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Co-Chair (with former Prime Minister Helen Clark) of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response.
The Independent Panel is charged with carrying out an independent, impartial, comprehensive evaluation of the World Health Organization and the international health response to the COVID-19 pandemic and making recommendations to Member States for strengthening global preparedness and response to the next pandemic.
Dr. Panjabi was named as one of the TIME 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2016, one of TIME's 50 Most Influential People in Health Care in 2018, received the 2017 TED Prize, and was listed as one of the World's 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune in 2015 and in 2017.