Liberians Gradually Abandoning Health Protocols As Instituted Community Handwashing Mechanisms Disappear

Duazon — Coronavirus checkpoints, once erected in nearly every community in Montserrado and Margibi when the disease broke out in Liberia in March, have now disappeared as the number of cases of the virus increases, distressing all 15 the counties in the country.

Manned by volunteers at the entrances of various communities mainly in Montserrado and Margibi--the epicenter of the virus--these checkpoints enforced hand-washing and mask-wearing and temperature-screening. They even promoted physical distancing and implemented public transport restrictions.

That is no longer the case.

"We have packed all of our buckets and containers because of no support. We really want to keep the checkpoint here but the community has refused to help us," says Roland Zehyou, the leader of a team of volunteers in Duazon. "No materials, no [powder] soap and no food for us. We are tired of begging for support." The checkpoint at Duazon was shut down since June 8.

Like Duazon, most neighborhoods across Monrovia and its suburbs had checkpoints enforcing health protocols instituted by the WHO and the government of Liberia. They were characteristic of communities' involvement in the prevention of infection at the earliest stage of the pandemic in Liberia.

"With the experience during Ebola, we thought the government would have come in to support us from the very beginning," says Varney Kamara. He used to be the chairman of the former taskforce in Point Four, the main entry to the Borough of New Kru Town, one of the most populous areas. "But we did not see any support and this was the main cause we closed down."

The situation in New Kru Town mirrors the one in Thinker's Village, GSA Road and Gardnersville.

"Some of us are family heads and needed to take care of our families. We tried to keep up the checkpoint but we could not get soap, Clorox and even food to eat," says Gehmenie Sengbeh, the head of the checkpoint in Battery Factory, Gardnersville. "Some people appreciated us but others did not. Sometimes people even used to abuse us and fight us."

Thinker's Village in Paynesville had one of the most impressive checkpoints. It was set up by Thinker Youth Association, a community-based organization there. On a visit to the community in May, this reporter observed the group was enforcing the safety measures at every entry point of the community. Taskforce members, dressed in their reflector jackets and wearing masks, ensured that people leaving and entering the community washed their hands. Motorists were made to carry the required number of passengers.

Now, three months later, the checkpoint has been dismantled.

"We ran out of cash to buy the sanitary materials like soap and [chlorine]," says Jerry Harmon, the financial secretary of the group. The taskforce initially would receive support from few residents of the community but as time went by, the support stopped and they were forced to shut down, Harmon says.

'Like Community Watch Team'

It is not clear where the idea of community checkpoints started but it could be traced back to the Ebola epidemic 2014-2016. Amid the deadly outbreak, residents of one Jene Wonde, one of the worst-affected towns in Grand Cape Mount County, began to set up checkpoints. They compelled people to wash their hands when entering and leaving a particular neighborhood. That exercise, local media reported at the time, helped reduce the rate of infection in the community. Soon, it began to be replicated in other areas.

Six years on, checkpoints were helping to prevent COVID-19 and promote good hygiene practices until they all disappeared, residents say. They blame the closure of the facilities to the lack of support and basic training for the taskforce members.

"Those volunteers were family heads and to keep them at the checkpoints, we should have all rallied to provide some forms of support, like incentives to buy food and solve some problems at home," points out Francis Kpah of Duazon.

"The taskforce needed support from the community, government and partners. The checkpoints were like a community watch team to me," says Emmanuel Davis of GSA Road. "Just as the watch team is helping the police to prevent crimes in the various communities, that's how the checkpoints were helping NPHIL and the Ministry in preventing COVID-19 and other sicknesses. But the two institutions did not see it that way."

Loretta Pope-Kai, the national chairperson of the National Civil Society Council of Liberia, agrees with Davis that the government underestimated the importance of the checkpoints. She calls on the government to do all it can to incorporate communities in the combat against coronavirus.

"COVID 19 is a serious national challenge that requires the honest, collaborative and collective efforts of all irrespective of persuasion," she tells FrontPage Africa in a phone interview. "There should be the involvement of more community structures (actors) in factual information dissemination around COVID-19. We need to strengthen community-led initiatives."

The Director General of the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL) Dr. Mosoka Fallah did not respond to queries for comment on the situation.

FrontPageAfrica also contacted Health Minister Dr. Wilhelmina Jallah and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francis Kateh but they did not respond to calls and text messages.

However, in an interview with FrontPageAfrica back in April, Fallah welcomed the idea of the checkpoints and disclosed that the government was exploring ways to empower the taskforce to sustain the process.

"To have an organically developed group from the community without people paying them, for me I think it is a very good example," Dr. Fallah said then. "Nevertheless, [community taskforce members] can volunteer for one or two months but God forbade if it goes for six months, then we need something to sustain them. We could start by giving them food or non-food items."

The disappearance of the community checkpoints come at the time Liberia coronavirus Cases continue to increase. Eighty-nine people have died of the disease from 1,250 cases as of August 12.

Back in Duazon, the surge of cases is convincing the community to reinstall its checkpoint, according to Zehyou.

"We are not happy with the whole idea of removing the checkpoint while at the same time the coronavirus cases continue to go up," Zehyou. "We really want to come back. And we are still hoping to get calls from the community, government and NGOs for any support they can give to put back the checkpoint."

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of our Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the American Jewish World Service. The Funder had no say in the story's content.

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