Liberia: Hunger Deadlier Than COVID-19

-Slum dwellers decry lockdown amid pandemic

Besieged by fear over Covid-19 infections due to overcrowdedness and being faced with serious financial problems by the lockdown, residents of West Point, Liberia's largest slum, are struggling to keep hunger at bay.

Home to at least 75,000 people across communities, West Point, an administrative township, is home to local fishermen and rural inhabitants in search of urban life from upcountry; gangsters who rob people and deal drugs; and market women selling piles of coal, chicken feet and potato greens.

Life in the township, a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean between the Mesurado and Saint Paul rivers, is spread across about 50 hectares off Monrovia, and has always been a tough one, a situation that has been compounded by the Coronavirus outbreak.

Residents in this slum community have complained of widespread hunger since President George Weah announced a lock-down on April 8, to contain the spread of the Coronavirus disease.

Under the state of emergency, the government ordered the 15 counties quarantined and all borders will be closed. The President also called for businesses, except few, to be closed and that residents should stay at home.

The devastating economic impacts of these actions, precipitated by Covid-19, is seeing a huge rise in the number of hungry slum dwellers, with those in West Point being the most affected.

In the face of such adversity, Nancy Wieh is doing all she can to fend for her family of six. She sells roasted maize (corn), from which she makes a little earning to keep her family afloat.

"Things have been difficult since this COVID-19 crisis. Things are not like before and life is getting difficult by the day," she said.

She earns about L$1,000. When expenses are deducted, she takes about L$475 home daily. "This is too small to feed the family, but we can manage because there is no other source of income," she added.

Nancy is among hundreds of women who lost their source of livelihood when their market stalls were destroyed in the commercial center of Water-Side, downtown Monrovia, by the Monrovia City Corporation. The MCC claimed that the initiative was an effort to give the city a facelift.

Nancy has been enduring difficulties since the outbreak. "We were sent home from the market and our market tables were destroyed," she said, adding that the situation will make recovery after the outbreak difficult as she will have to search for a new spot to sell her goods, which include imported used clothes and slippers.

Most slum dwellers are daily wage earners, and not going to work for so long means they have absolutely no money and hence cannot buy food.

Businesses and other services have since been forced to close, leading to a loss of jobs for hundreds of thousands of workers who have been laid off.

Decontee Nah, 42, works as a house maid. She and her husband, a daily laborer, are now jobless. The little food they have won't feed their five member family, she said. "The government said we should stay home and that it will bring food to us. But we are yet to see anything. And our situation is getting worst because no way to hustle," she said.

Janjay Korpah, a colleague of Decontee, has been struggling to feed her three kids (two boys and a girl) since her husband died in 2014. She lost her source of income when the lockdown was imposed.

"I used to sell used clothes down Waterside, but this is no longer possible as the government told us to stay home," Ms. Korpah said.

Liberia has recorded 311 COVID-19 cases so far, with twenty seven deaths. The government imposed a 6am-3pm curfew and shut businesses down in early March, to help slow the spread of the virus. To help with food shortages, the government announced the provision of stimulus package to the most vulnerable--but this promise is yet to be fulfilled since the pronouncement was made over a month earlier.

It is no secret that most slum dwellers in places like Doe Community, Clara Town and New Kru Town no longer worry about the virus but worry about hunger more as they cannot go out to work. They do not have food reserves. Whatever little they have cannot save them from the difficult times that lie ahead.

One of such person is Siawah Konmeh, a sole breadwinner of a family comprising her three children and seven grandchildren. She lost her husband during the Liberian Civil War and has been taking care of their two sons and a daughter since.

She had a table in central Monrovia where she sold dry-goods, in addition to working as a cleaner at a government ministry but was sent home as a nonessential staff. "Our salaries not even coming since we were sent home," she said.

After the lockdown, she lost her job and does not know how she would be able to bring food to the table.

"I have stopped working," said Isaac Kieh, a father of four, who works as a security guard for an insurance company. "My wife is also not working. There is nothing going on now."

Mr. Isaac Kieh heading to Central Monrovia for his daily hustle

As means of curtailing a further spread of the COVID-10 infection, the governance imposed some measures such as social distancing, wearing of face masks, hand-washing, curfew, among others,

But these measures are hard to implement in crowded slum communities where people live in cramped conditions, lacking basic facilities like toilets and clean water.

Many fear that it would be devastating if COVID-19 were to surface in West Point--a similar anxiety that encapsulated the township in 2014 following the Ebola crisis.

"We are literally sitting on a powder keg," Alex Nimely, a health worker, said. "It won't take long before it explodes."

Nimely, like many others, is worried that a humanitarian catastrophe looms large over their community, as they have been left to fight the Coronavirus pandemic alone.

The government is yet to extend assistance to anyone since President Weah declared the lockdown, a move that many say has turned into a human tragedy--denying many, who live on daily hustle, their sources of livelihood.

Critics of the government have accused it of rushing with the lockdown without a proper plan.

For West Pointers, having a daily meal is a luxury, let alone buying facemasks and sanitizers. Donations from NGOs and other prominent people are making the difference, especially in observance of health protocols.

West Point is congested

Everyone is concerned about the virus but there is little they can do to protect themselves. Makeshift shanties that lean on each other make it impossible for people to maintain a distance.

The overall sanitation is poor, with toilets unclean and access to healthcare scarce.

This means the suffering of thousands is multiplying due to lost earnings and price hikes of consumer goods.

The situation of Helena Greaves, a domestic worker in the home of a Lebanese businessman who left the country, is dire. She decided to venture into selling food stuffs with the little saving she had after her employer left the country.

But her luck ran out when her goods were confiscated by city police officers who were enforcing lockdown mandate. "They [city police officers] took all of my goods while I was trying to get home after my daily hustle," Helena said, "I'm left with nothing, absolutely nothing." She now depends on friends for daily meal.

Ezekiel Wisseh, a resident of Doe Community, worked at a construction site as a daily wage earner. But he has not been able to work due to the lockdown. The 31-year-old says his family, including his wife and three children, has not had a proper meal in a week.

Wisseh had about L$2,000 (about US$10) in his pocket when the lockdown was imposed about a month and a half ago, with no prospect of work in sight as the virus rages on. "I don't know how I am going to feed my family as I have run out of money," he said.

Ma Rebecca Weah also faces the huge task of fending for her family daily. She was one of those whose market table was destroyed down Waterside. "The lockdown has made our food problem worst," she said, adding: "Many of us are already starving, while others have shifted to eating one meal a day or resorted to cutting down their food intake."

Ma Weah of Clara Town believes that the coming days will be critical for the country, especially for members of the most vulnerable population. "Most of the families will soon run out of their last savings," she said.

For Madam Wieh, who is like many of her colleagues and compatriots, they are struggling with both hunger and Coronavirus at the same time.

"But I think hunger will kill us before the virus does," she said.

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