Coronavirus: President Weah leads Liberia into chaos

By Seltue Karweaye

The coronavirus outbreak has refocused attention on Liberia, a country that has lurched from one crisis to another since independence in 1847. Many Liberians are openly angry at the government of President George Weah, who won the 2017 presidential election through the popular votes.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) in Liberia is, without doubt, the result of widespread social and environmental degradation brought about by the demagogues in government, which are clinging to the old order of corruption, nepotism, incompetency, etc. Corruption, nepotism, patronage, etc. may not have spawned the COVID-19, but they are formidable fertile ground for it to spread in Liberia.

Liberia is a weak state, not because of natural disasters, but because President George Weah and his cronies continue to plunder the national wealth stemming from donor funds, offshore oil exploration and other natural resources. Despite the huge foreign direct investment, ordinary people are living in abject poverty. Corruption has eaten deep into Liberian society and government, and even quarantine measures announced to keep the coronavirus are meant to spread the virus.

I was recently taken aback by an article written by one Alvin Wesseh, assistant minister for research and extension service at the Ministry of Agriculture, a diehard loyalist of the ruling Coalition Democratic Change (CDC) and expelled student of the University of Liberia.

In his diatribe against Dr. Dougbeh Chris Nyan, Asst. minister Wisseh wrote, “Your attack against Mayor Koijee is politically motivated with raw hate!”

Firstly, Dr. Nyan is an accomplished Liberian medical doctor, a biomedical scientist, and social activist and his opinion or advice on domestic and global health issues should matter.

Dr. Nyan opined that the so-called 6000 non-medical contact tracers is a recipe for spreading COVID-19 and corruption in Liberia. I tend to agree with Dr. Nyan and what cretinous character like Wisseh failed to realize is COVID-19 brought a response, but the people of Liberia face a very fundamental health crisis long before COVID-19.

The health sector across Liberia reveals an area of national life that is in dire need of rescue through new policies, regulations and strengthened institutions. The challenges of the Liberia health sector bring to bear the popular philosophical postulation: “a person that fails to plan plans to fail”.

Across the country, treatable diseases like malaria and cholera are still killers, infant and maternal mortality rates are amongst the worst in the world while our life expectancy seems to be dropping. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that 15% of national budgets be allocated to healthcare. In the 2018/2019 budget, only US$86 million was allocated to the health sector about 13% of the national budget. With the widespread dysfunctions in governance that we are experiencing as a country under Weah, the under-budgeting for the sector is worsened by the fact that actual releases are usually far less than the amounts allocated.

Additionally, effective utilization of the little that gets released is hindered by the corruption and incompetence that exist in the public sector agencies. What injudicious character like Wisseh failed to realized is declaring a state of emergency without incentives for citizens, joint security forces physically abusing citizens and putting so-called 6000 Non-medical contact tracers on the streets is not the solution of preventing the spread of COVID-19 in Liberia.

COVID-19 is stretching the nation’s decrepit medical services, already hard-pressed to cope with the scourge of diseases in Liberia. The desperate poverty makes the country ripe for public health emergencies. Clean running water is scarce. Medication and basic supplies like gloves, needles, and masks required for good sanitation are generally in short supply at hospitals. These conditions provide fertile breeding grounds for illnesses like the COVID-19.

The Government of Liberia, led by president Weah, fell far short of taking preventive and proactive steps to protect its citizens until the virus started to spread. According to the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL), Liberia recorded a record increase in the number of confirmed cases from 14 to 31, an increase of 17 new cases. They also reported 1 more death.

The questions that the Liberian public would like Weah’s administration to answer are; how did we get to this stage? Why is it that, when the virus entered Liberia did the government not act until it started to spread? Why did the government not provide adequate equipment and resources, promptly, and in time for front line staff putting their lives at risk, to save others? What happened to the National Disaster Management Agency, Ministry of Health and National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL)? Why is the President appointing Mary Broh and Finda Bundoo? These are the fundamental issues that have tested the government’s readiness and ability to manage the COVID-19 crisis.

I listened to President Weah’s broadcast to the nation announcing his prescriptive plan of action aimed at combating COVID-19. Sadly, while President Weah was in the studio playing musical artist, putting his pictures on bucket and his officials following suit, let me further highlight how other governments sprung into action on the first reporting of COVID-19 in China in contrast to the Liberian government. Ivory Coast closed her borders immediately. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster and warned the outbreak could have a “potentially lasting” impact on the continent’s most developed economy, which is already in recession.

Measures were taken barring travel to and from countries such as Italy, Germany, China, and the United States. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta suspended travel from any country with reported COVID-19 cases.

In West Africa, Ghana banned entry to anyone who has been to a country with more than 200 coronavirus cases in the past 14 days, unless they are an official resident or Ghanaian national. Ghana has recorded six cases. President Nana Akufo-Addo also closed universities and schools. He also banned public gatherings for four weeks, he said, private burials are allowed for groups of less than 25 people.

In southern Africa, Namibia ordered schools to close for a month after recording its first two cases. Djibouti, which has no confirmed case of COVID-19, suspended all international flights. Tanzania, which also has no cases yet, canceled flights to India and suspended universities, school sporting events.

While quarantines were mandatory in countries like Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda for nationals and residents coming from high-risk countries, the Weah government’s initial response was largely an advisory measure in Liberia. As a result, 6,000 non-health workers are scrambling for contact tracing after travelers on flights that arrived the country, in some cases as far back as weeks ago, test positive. It’s a task made more difficult by the reality that, without functioning databases for contact details, the government will largely rely on public service announcements to find possible contacts.

Liberia’s ability to manage the COVID-19 crisis as effectively as it did the Ebola epidemic in 2014 has yet to be seen, but the economic response to the global downturn is likely to be less robust. The government is still spending 90% (US$511.3M) of the entire budget on recurrent expenditures. There is growing extreme hardship among the average Liberian from inflation on foodstuffs. The haphazard economic management that was seen between 2014-2016 is likely to define 2020 approach.

According to the 2019 global multidimensional poverty index, the number of people living in abject poverty in Liberia is 50% and with recession returning to Liberia that number will only grow. The World Bank’s latest economic analysis for the sub-Saharan region predicts the pandemic could cost as much as $79 billion in output losses for 2020. In this environment, thousands of Liberia will be at risk of dying from the diseases of poverty (malaria, diarrhea, lassa fever, etc.) in addition to the threat from COVID-19.

Asian countries seemed to have turn a corner in the past week in stemming the spread of the coronavirus. Liberia prides itself on being the oldest independent country on the African continent, thinking big and dreaming big, but successfully managing the coronavirus will require big actions and bold reforms and not pity politics.