Liberia has inevitably registered its first case of the COVID-19. We must all pray for the speedy recovery of our victims as a manifestation of our national solidarity to confront and overcome the enormous challenges ahead. And let me encourage you further, I live at less than 7kms from the epicentre (a city of more than 15 000 souls) that was declared one of the first COVID-19 cluster zones in France -long before the epidemic spread throughout the country. The city mayor was quarantined, deaths continue among mostly the fragile, elderly persons, schools/churches closed down, gatherings banned, and the rest of us still alive now need official "Passes" to get out of our homes for what ever reason. The penalty for not respecting the law is 135 euros. And what an irony, the eternal glittering and congested boulevards of France are deserted for fear of a mysterious "virus" and not a war.
But looking back, if had we not snubbed China from the onset and applied its communist discipline methods, perhaps the world would have avoided the spread of the coronavirus with some concerted efforts. But not, we were too democratic, powerful and capitalist money conscious to imitate a potential rival - and yet our biggest creditor, investor and manufacturer.
Now, what is reassuring in poor Liberia is President Weah's exemplary disciplinary action against the first coronavirus victim. While it may be seen as expeditious or disproportionate, it is also consistent with the government's long anticipated draconian measures put in place to avert the spread of the COVID-19 - testing kits, establishing a quarantine center, folkloric awareness campaigns, etc. But as usual, Liberians do not take their government seriously. Notwithstanding, these actions taken around the time the epidemic was at its peck in China, and just when the Western Powers - playing the-big-and-bad - were hurriedly airlifting their citizens from China instead of extending a helping hand. Well, they forgot to realize that while the Chinese were applying the radical measures to contain the virus, they in turn were importing and exporting it around the world.
Highly focused, though, the Liberian government had continued to act and prepared itself for the worst case scenario. In a significant symbolic gesture the National Legislature presented an official message of solidarity to China through its Ambassador near Monrovia. On the other hand, just few days before the virus was confirmed in Liberia, the government - with immediate effect - constituted a special Presidential Advisory Committee headed by the President himself, as the Commander-in-Chief of our nation. The members of this committee include our key international "partners" such as WHO, World Bank and UNICEF (see: www.liberianoberver.com/news/president-weah-chairs-special-advisory-committee-on-coronavirus-prevention-in-liberia/ - March 13, 2020). And though I am not a fan of the World Bank and Co., but we are very grateful for help from anywhere it may come to save our people and nation.
In fact, the battle is just beginning and far from being over. And I believe our fight will be two-fold: defeat the virus and stir the economy. It is no secret that our poor health system cannot withstand an influx of cases from the epidemic and at same time attend to patients from the regular illnesses. These developed nations are even having very tough times to properly organize; so definitely it should not be any better for us. Nonetheless, I am very optimistic as to the outcome because of two reasons. First, from all that we have heard thus far it would seem that keeping away the epidemic requires self-discipline and changing our behavioural patterns. And second, I have the strongest feeling that the world cannot afford a prolonged global lockdown as the consequences could be colossal economically, politically and socially.
And that brings us to the other important aspect: stirring the national economy. The paralysis and crumbling down of the global economy as we are already witnessing are bound to impact every nation and even more devastating than the virus. And the worst of all we are living at a period where the "everybody for self and God for all" instinct has replaced the habitual outburst of international solidarity and generosity. Imagine, it is only China - the first victim of the virus - that has come to the aid of Italy, France and other affected European countries with a huge consignment of masks and other medical supplies and not our Great United States. Oh, I forgot, it is the other way around: "Make America Great Again." And I guess we have not gotten there yet; as a result we have not heard about the COVID-19 Task forces, Doctors without borders, and countless NGOs en route to save Africa from extermination. This tells us that we should be fully prepared to stand on own two little feet.
From this backdrop, I want to give a few words of advice to the government and ourselves as a people.
Avoiding The Ebola Pandemonium
We definitely have in our subconscious mind the sad spectacle of the Ebola epidemic when some of our government officials abandoned their functions in precipitation and ran to the United States to live and enjoy their ill-gotten wealth. Then when their bellies were full to boredom, they begun theorizing all the possible scenarios to bring down the government in Monrovia. Of course, during this time our poor people were left unattended and dying in droves even from unrelated Ebola diseases.
Well, we note today that the COVID-19 has proven to possess no official passport or border- it is not an African disease, and it not a Chinese made either; it is not White neither is it Black; it does not favour the rich and disfavour the poor. Put bluntly - it is a Global DISEASE, clearly depicting the pathetic state of our today's world - unpredictable and no cure in sight.
Simply put, going into panic and running from your poor country at the first announcement of the coronavirus case will in no way be a life saving guarantee. All the indications are that your best bet is to stay port, self-confinement, respect the health protocols rigorously, etc. And for the rest you must trust in God to strengthen your resolve to go through it all - the stress, anxiety and uncertainties.
And second, a maximum of national unity, solidarity and sacrifices are required. We should put aside our political differences and rally around our government to go through this crisis as quickly, peacefully and successfully as much as possible. Let us all be "our brother's keeper.'
An Example Of The Grassroots Economic Impact
I should have been in Liberia as of the first week in March with a 3-member team, but had to immediately postpone the trip as soon as my area was declared a COVID-19 cluster zone in late February. Truly, for the nationalist I pretend to be, I never wanted be considered or even suspected of being a carrier of an epidemic to my poor and struggling nation. Surprisingly, it was not too long I came across this announcement on the internet from the National Public Health Institute Of Liberia: "Travel Advisory On The Precautionary Observation Of All Persons Arriving From Countries With Widespread And Active Human To Human Transmission Of COVID-19 Within 14 Days Of Departure."
This document, most likely ignored by many Liberians, was dated February 28th. I could not believe it - a very precise, responsible and professional instrument from a government we so often scold as incompetent and irresponsible. What is more, according to a famous French journal the measure taken by the government had placed Liberia ahead of France with respect to (at least meeting one of the conditions) of compliance to the required international norms to curtail the spread of an epidemic as the COVID-19. I was deeply impressed, and it comforted the cancellation of my travel.
But I can never stop thinking on those pro-poor market women who sit daily before the Benson Street supermarkets (between Mechlin and Newport streets), the catholic junction and also near the ELWA junction for whom I am a faithful customer. They would definitely be deprived of some little extra earnings since I usually stop by every other day to buy fresh fruits, eddoes, cassava, fish, etc. whenever I am in Monrovia. Then there are also the many poor family members who come in to say "hello", the car rental, cook, driver, and the list goes on. This is all part of the micro- economy on which most Liberians survived daily.
Now, considering this petty financial lost at my poor man level of expenditure, can we imagine the greater economic impact from all the other many travellers who have also cancelled their travel plans: Liberians, foreign businessmen/women, tourists, and others. Or the airlines that are suspending their flights to and fro Liberia; local businesses slowing down; workers not getting pay, etc.
So yes, folks, the economic challenges ahead cannot be underestimated. The consequences could have far reaching implications if we do not unite, have patience and be understanding.
Until then, and as we wait and fasten our belts for any eventuality, I appeal to the government to include these few ideas into its immediate contingency plan:
- The government should make sure there is enough L$ reserve (if not yet) at the National Bank to keep the local economy afloat, pay civil servants, meet government obligations/operations, etc..
- Like rice, gasoline has now proven to be a major national security product; thus there should never be any shortage of both rice and petroleum products in the country. In fact, the country should have its own large reserve of rice and petroleum for national emergencies; or else the government must simply take full control of the importation and distribution of these essential commodities in the country to guarantee our national security.
- The national security apparatus (Army, Police, LIS and others) should be in readiness to enforce any lockdown or quarantine; take control of the main entry routes into the country to facilitate the flow of essential commodities into the country.
- As soon as the COVID-19 is eradicated, it is imperative that our new, dynamic and energetic Minister of agriculture should be given the utmost support to be out there in the field mobilizing, encouraging and supporting our rural farmers for mass agricultural production - rice, eddoes, cassava, potatoes, and you name it. We must now strive to make agriculture the booster of both our micro and macro-economies, and more importantly the guarantor of our food security.
I am confident that with our extraordinary resilience as a nation and people, "WE SHALL OVERCOME!"
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