In a recent report by the Liberian government, it's estimated that the first three confirmed COVID-19 cases came in contact with 390 people and 45 critical contacts. As a result of this, the government called for a nationwide shutdown and ordered all schools closed. The Liberia National Police and Public Health Institute have embarked on a campaign to raise awareness about the virus to stress the need for safety. Such caution is essential and partly the right step to help in curbing the virus. This is in light of the country's experience with the outbreak of the Ebola Virus just six years ago.
The outbreak of the Ebola virus ensued twin shocks to the Liberian economy that shrank growth, raised unemployment and declined access to social services for the majority of the Liberian population who live in extreme poverty. Ironically, the Coronavirus outbreak is also happening at a time when the Liberian economy is suffering from externalities and inflation. Just like the economy during Ebola, the current Liberian economy is experiencing another twin-shock in the wake of a global pandemic.
All else considered, Liberia is unprepared to handle another shock. Since the political transition in 2017, the economy has been in free fall with a skyrocketed foreign exchange rate culminating in increased market prices. The cost of living is high, and the economy has been unstable over the last two years. Already the country has little development planning and implementation and insight for preparing for a crisis. It operates impulsively on short-termism, invests little in health infrastructure with governments that jump at every opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of their people. The state operates a corruption syndicate. The evidence of this is the embezzlement of millions of dollars meant to fight the Ebola Virus in 2015. During the Ebola outbreak, the country was darkened by the odious sickness; the health system was overwhelmed, communities ravaged and hopes shattered. The former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, offered an emotional yet revealing appeal to the world to help the country fight the virus. It was a sad moment for Liberians who have lived through some of the darkest times in human history. Not only was the health system broken, but the entire country was also pushed to the brink of collapse. It was a national tragedy for the Liberian people.
In what was dubbed "Letter to the World", former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf cried out like a helpless toddler that a "generation of Africans were being lost to economic catastrophe." And appealed to the conscience of every nation in the world that the fight against the virus required "a commitment from every nation that has the capacity to help - whether that is with emergency funds, medical supplies or clinical expertise". As it is the norm of African governments, it was of course, vivid that president Sirleaf was not only reaching out for help, she was begging for money at the feet of the world when she said "it is the duty of all of us, as global citizens, to send a message that we will not leave millions of West Africans to fend for themselves."
Just as her tears rolled down, the world listened. Liberia received international support. Millions of dollars were invested in the country's fight against the virus. The moral conscience of the world was awakened and aid poured in as the government said was required to quarantine the virus to the dustbin.
A National Ebola Trust Fund (NETF) was established to coordinate and speed up the fight against the virus. The Red Cross alone contributed $100 million to the three affected countries. A huge chunk of the money meant to strengthen the health sector's capacity was squandered by irresponsible government officials who have no conscience of the suffering of their people. An investigation by Red Cross auditors revealed that in Liberia $2.7m disappeared in fraudulently overpriced supplies, or in salaries for non-existent aid workers. Majority of the money sent to Liberia was not accounted for according to the General Auditing Commission (GAC) of Liberia. The conduct of the affairs of the NETF, the GAC found, were marred by financial irregularities and material control deficiencies. Even as the virus reported 28,600 cases and 11,325 deaths in the three countries affected, Liberian government officials shamelessly plunged into public funds, which is also said to be responsible for the deterioration of situations in the country at the time. In the cesspool of corruption and mismanagement, not a single individual was held responsible. No one was held accountable for enriching themselves at the expense of the Liberian people at a time when access to basic social services for the majority of the Liberian people was nonexistent.
This is why the manners of the current Liberian government, toward the COVID-19, must be treated with caution. First, the country isn't as affected as most countries in Europe or to bring it home--as other African countries. It has recorded three cases, and all were imported. And almost all were noticed upon their return to the country. Though the spread of the virus is fast, the estimation must be watched as to how three people reached 390 people in such a short time.
The Liberian government, just as most other African countries, have called for a National Health Emergency that has raised public panic and created miss feelings about the country's already overwhelmed health system's ability to curb the virus. The foundation of this African hysteria is based on a statement from Bill Gates. In February of this year, during the infancy of the outbreak of the virus, Microsoft Founder, Bill Gates warned that Africa could be hit worse by the virus than China, estimating about 10 million deaths worldwide. This is true, but not for the reasons that Gates mentioned. It's true that Africa's health system is overwhelmed, but given its demographics and the rate of affection and fatality, Gates could be wrong because Africa is young. The virus is more likely to kill elderly people than young people.
The virus could kill more Africans only when African governments use residual sympathy to get international donations by raising national havoc, lock down cities leaving citizens with little capacity to fend for themselves with no government subsidy. And putting women, majority of whom survive on market activities, who are also said to be the most affected in the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa out of work. We have already seen this happen in some African countries with economic and social shutdown leaving their population with scarce means of survival. Just yesterday, the Liberian government demolished the Waterside Market, which is a major source of income for thousands of people suffering economic and social inequalities. The decision of the government to not only shut it down but go to the extent of demolishing was a bad judgement call.
Furthermore, advanced economies that have been hit worse by the virus have old populations, and there's a recent report emanating from Italy that its high fatality rate is because of its demographics.
The country has an elderly population, the majority of whom, have been suffering from other illnesses. Though most of Africa is poor and underdeveloped, it will not be affected by the virus in the sense that Gates predicts, it will be hit worse by the virus because of Africa's herd mentality, an illustration of how individuals or societies imitate other group members of higher social status.
Because the US closed down its borders, Liberia closed its borders. There's a nationwide shutdown in Germany; thus, Nigeria does the same. The underlying question of how these countries are affected, and contextualization needed to curb the virus is out of the question as long as the West is doing the same.
Now, one can suspect that most of these shutdowns are being put in effect, not because of national public health emergency or safety, but that African governments can use the existing situation to get international donations. After Liberia announced its first two cases, the government announced that the World Bank committed $15 million to strengthen the country's capacity to fight the virus. It is no coincidence that it was only after international donations started coming in that some African countries began taking draconian measures to shut down. These countries were skeptical initially when almost of western power whose fountain of aid they drink from were hit. There was no hope of an International Relief Fund, now that aid has started flowing in, we are most likely to see the number of cases rise in Africa with drastic measures that would put their people at huge economic risk. This is no neglect of the fact that there are or could be genuine cases later, but we must be careful with the Coronavirus numbers coming out of Africa and the potential exploitation that comes with it.
If the International Community cares about the safety and wellbeing of Africans, it must intervene with caution and work with civil society organizations rather than giving millions of dollars to African governments, Liberia especially. Just as the funds for the Ebola outbreak were squandered, we're most likely to experience the same. African politicians live off the suffering of their people, and it's in times like this that they become more desperate to do anything at the expense of their suffering masses.
The World Bank and Liberia's international development partners must especially remember that just a few months ago 15.5bn Liberian dollars ($104m, £82m) disappeared in tin air with no trace, including the mismanagement of a 25m US dollar cash injection into the economy last year. The two reports done by Kroll and the General Auditing Commission reveals that the claim by the government that the money was injected in the economy for stability was a fraud. The Presidential Investigation Team (PIT) have flagged discrepancies on how the Mop-up exercise was conducted. According to the GAC report, 15 entities received $491,697 USD but denied that they participated in the exercise. Another 27 entities received nearly $703,000 USD but are not registered with Liberia's Business Registry. 52 entities received nearly $1.1 million dollars but refused to respond to calls and text messages from auditors to confirm receipt of the money. 8 entities recorded in the CBL records as receiving over $163,000 were not in operation when the auditors visited them. In other words, there's a lack of accountability and transparency in Liberia's public institutions.
The Liberian government is a rogue government. It is desperate and would do anything to continue living at the expense of its people. International support must be given in equipment instead of money, and money that comes to Liberia must be managed by an independent body that is accountable and transparent. The Liberian people cannot bear yet another financial skullduggery from their government.
Finally, instead of shutting down, which is already having dire consequences for the majority of those who live at the margins, African governments should continue to quarantine people coming in their countries for the 14 days period already mentioned by health experts. Isolate the old, encourage people to wear masks while at work and take necessary precautions. Shutdown for African economies, especially one like Liberia, is an economic miscalculation. The shocks and financial crisis that comes after a long shutdown, would be deadly for Africa as there will be obvious fluctuations in aid as they always rely on for economic recovery. Almost all western countries will be focused on economic recovery rather than donating to African countries. There's no better time to prevent that than now. Africa's own strategy for curbing the virus is a necessity. African governments must prove that they can think for themselves and adopt solutions that fit into the living conditions of their people.