FrontPageAfrica (Monrovia)

14 August 2014

Liberia: I. Coast Imposes Economic Blockade On Ebola-Hit Liberia

Photo: Tommy Trenchard/IRIN
A government health worker in the MOH-led Kenema Ebola Treatment Centre in Sierra Leone attends to a victim. July 2014.

Monrovia — Liberia could be bracing for the worst before a glimmer of light shows up at the end of the tunnel. Already struggling to deal with the deadly Ebola outbreak, the post-war nation is poised for a major shortage of food, petroleum and basic necessities in the wake of a decision by the neighboring Ivory Coast to block access of ships using its space as a transshipment point due to the Ebola outbreak, FrontPageAfrica has learned.

The World Health Organization's latest tally of the dead reports1,013 deaths across four countries -- Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone reported the most confirmed and probable cases, 730, and the third-highest death toll, 315.

Health workers suspect that this figure may be far too low, given the number of confirmed Ebola cases in the country, 656. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone have declared a state of emergency in hopes of controlling the spread but with limited success.

August 12 Deadline Over

Now, Abidjan Port Authorities have reportedly issued an official circular to all Owners and Agents advising that beginning August 12, 2014, "NO VESSEL arriving from one of the contaminated countries is allowed to call in Abidjan until further notice.

They also recommend for other vessels that any illness occurring on-board with Ebola-like symptoms should immediately be reported, regardless of where that vessel is arriving from." Shipping associations have been advised that the Port of Abidjan in Ivory Coast has made a decision not to allow entry to any vessel that arrives from a country which is experiencing an outbreak of Ebola.

Furthermore, it is asked that any vessel which has an ill person on board, particularly if the symptoms are similar to those of Ebola, should report the same immediately to the Port Authorities, whether or not the vessel has come from a port in a country suffering an outbreak.

Vessels that give concern to the Port Authorities may be subjected to up to 21 days of quarantine, which period is a usual incubation time for the virus. This means that shipping lines like Maersk could face difficulties going to Liberia with the mandate because Ivory Coast is a key transshipment point. This could also affect aid agencies bringing in relief supplies to aid the Ebola-hit nation.

In the wake of the Ivorians' decision, ports like the San Pedro are already in the process of issuing compulsory notices for inbound vessels. Several shipping news networks are already reporting, and informing shipowners of the Ivorians' decision.

No Options for Rice Importers

FrontPageAfrica gathered late Wednesday after its print edition had wrapped, that the matter has been brought to the attention of the Liberian presidency, which reportedly met with senior administration officials to discuss the Ivory Coast and Ghana's decision to not allow ships to transit through them to Liberia due to the Ebola outbreak.

Senior administration officials informed FrontPageAfrica that Finance ministry officials met with rice importers on Wednesday in a bid to explore ways in which the matter can be resolved, but were reportedly informed by the importers that the absence of access route from Ivory Coast there is not much they can do. In essence, rice importers cannot bring in rice because there is no ship to bring it.

The Ivory Coast has reportedly informed the Liberian government on Wednesday that it would not allow any ship that docks in Liberia into its territory. Currently the farm produce into Liberia are transshipped through Liberia's sister nations- Ivory Coast, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

21-Day Quarantine for Sick Ship Workers

The influential Hellenic Shipping News Agency reported Wednesday that ships will now be required, as a result of the new mandate to display along with the usual documents to be forwarded to the Harbor Master's office, systematic receipt/report of their last sanitary control + photocopies of the onboard medical consults registry for the past 20 days.

"Furthermore any case of sudden fever and bleeding must be declared. Also, any suspicion of Ebola case must be declared to the Sanitary Authorities prior to berthing 2/ once at berth: Representatives of the Port's Health Authorities will be awaiting vessels' berthing in order to perform a systematic medical screening of the crew.

Other Port Authorities will only be allowed onboard for regular duties once vessel is cleared by the Health Authorities. To that effect, ships will need to instruct their watchmen to forbid ANY ACCESS TO THE VESSEL TO ANYONE BUT the Health Authorities until clearance is granted." In addition, ships are being notified that in the case of suspicion, the yellow flag will have to remain visible and no one will be allowed in or out of the ship.

"The suspected case will be evacuated to the San Pedro Hospital. Vessel and rest of the crew will be placed under a 21-days quarantine. It must however be specified that the above procedure was decided BEFORE the above-described decision made by the Abidjan Port Authorities and it might very well be that, in light of such, the San Pedro P.A. will also decide to strengthen their position."

This development could mean Liberians could also face hardships as gasoline shortage could also be an issue. Ivory Coast is the central point for Liberia's main petroleum supplier. With ships arriving in Liberia transiting through Ivory Coast, the absence of an access point could mean Liberia will be without petroleum products and food as the deadly Ebola outbreak intensifies.

Ship owners are being informed that members who have any person on board their vessel who falls sick after or during a port call in a country suffering from an Ebola outbreak should immediately seek to have medical advice given to the vessel.

"Ship manager's company doctors should be contacted to provide immediate assistance. Members should also inform the Association and in case of urgency or concern the master of a vessel should not hesitate to immediately contact the nearest Skuld correspondent," the order notes.

Shippers Chartering Teams Advised

Additionally, members whose vessels have recently called at a port in a country where there is an Ebola outbreak are encouraged to contact local agents at the next port of call without delay to find out what may be the latest requirements for health declaration, inspection and quarantine.

"If the next, or even further subsequent, port of call is in the Ivory Coast, then members are asked to contact the Association immediately so that further advice and assistance can be provided."

Shipowners who are fixing vessels to West Africa, they need to urgently advise their chartering teams to be aware of this issue and to avoid a fixture which would see a vessel call first at a port in a country with an Ebola outbreak and subsequently call at Abidjan. Some political observers point to Liberia's reliance on import as a major impediment to its consumption and development.

Late President William R. Tolbert encouraged total reliance which encouraged Liberians to return to the soil. His successor Samuel Kanyon Doe introduced the "Green Revolution" to draw Liberians attention to the cultivation of rice as a means of discouraging Liberians' reliant on foreign nations for their staple food and prevent the recurrence of the famous <

"Rice Riot" which happened a year ago before he took the chair where hundreds of Liberians were massacred by security forces while staging street protest against the increase in price rise from US$20 to US$39 for 100 Kg bags. The Food and Agriculture organization (FAO) of the United Nations has repeatedly advised Liberians to produce their staple foods, a plea that has fallen on deaf ears due to the lack of support for small farmers from the government.

Airlines Blockade Adds to Misery

Complicating matters, Liberia is on the verge of being air-locked with several major and regional carriers turning their backs on Africa's oldest republic due to the Ebola outbreak. British Airways announced last week that it is suspending flights to Sierra Leone and Liberia amid a rising death toll from an outbreak of Ebola in the area. Flights will be suspended until the end of August "due to the deteriorating public health situation in both countries," the U.K. carrier said in a statement. The situation will remain under "constant review" in the coming weeks.

Delta is expected to make its final flight service on August 27, 2014. Air France quit earlier this year and several regional carriers like ASKY and ARIK have also terminated service to Liberia. Ivory Coast had previously banned air travelers from the three countries worst-hit by the Ebola outbreak and ordered its flagship carrier Air Cote D'Ivoire to cease flights to and from them.

The measures are the latest sign of mounting anxiety about a disease that has killed nearly 1,000 people in one of the world's poorest regions and has been branded an international health emergency by the World Health Organization. More recently, authorities at the Gambia Civil Aviation Department ban local airlines from picking passengers from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

"The decision was an executive order and we have banned flights from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea again due to the Ebola outbreak," according to the department. "Passengers from the three mentioned countries will not be allowed into the Gambia due to the Ebola outbreak," said a senior aviation officer of the department, who declined to be named.

Finance Minister Amara Konneh recently shot down the economic expectations in the wake of the outbreak, declaring that the Ebola outbreak threatened to reverse some of Liberia's economic gains made since its 1989-2003 civil war and the government plan to cut its growth forecast for this year.

The economy, according to Konneh, had been expected to grow by 5.9 percent this year, but was no longer realistic due to a slowdown in the transport and services sectors and the departure of foreign workers because of the disease.

The blockade imposed by the Ivory Coast is not expected to help matters, economists say. Konneh, in a recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed noted that while the Ebola virus has killed almost a thousand people, most West Africans will never contract the disease or know anyone who does.

"But Ebola's economic impact will affect millions. When this crisis ends, Liberia and her neighbors will need international assistance to rebuild their battered economies--help that America is uniquely placed to provide." Konneh explained that the reason the economic threat is so great is because of the controls needed to fight the disease.

"Save for the two airports remaining open in Liberia, our borders have been closed, schools and markets shut, the movement of people restricted, affected areas quarantined, and troops stationed on the streets. All of this means a virtual economic standstill."

On the verge of being shut out by air, the looming impact of Abidjan's decision could have severe repercussions on a post-war nation on the mends, offset by a major catastrophe wreaking havoc and threatening the country's economic survival. For many, the question now lingering on the minds of many is how will Liberians survive for even a month without imports in a country that imports nearly everything its citizens consume.

Tension is bound to rise even as the ongoing discussions with rice importers seek to minimize the political risks. For the foreseeable future, it appears that Ivory Coast holds the decision for the well-being of Liberians in a time of great national peril from Ebola.

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