Liberia: Bearing Health Workers’ Adjustments, Key Provisions of President Weah’s COVID-19 Stimulus Package Look Set for Passage
Monrovia – In submitting his proposal for a stimulus package to aid his declaration of a State of Emergency in Liberia due to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, President George Manneh Weah said he is aware that members of the both houses of the national legislature were brimming with similar ideas aimed at bringing relief to scores of Liberians at risk of infection from the disease.
Over the last 72 hours, legislators have been doing just that. But two drafts with adjustments – from both houses – in possession of FrontPageAfrica, suggest that much of what the President is proposing, including a US$25 million package toward free electricity during the duration of the lockdown, the market women and Small Informal Petty Traders Bank Loan Program, the Domestic Debt and the Tax and Policy Administration Stimulus Program, on the verge of winning concurrence from the legislature.
A draft of the approval to and modification of the Security and Social Measures of the SOE Declaration and the National Response Strategy, being drafted in the Senate is calling for a longer lockdown and curfew period owing to the fact that nearly seven days have already elapsed since the State of Emergency commenced.
Explaining their rationale for an extension, the Senate is proposing that the three weeks being put on the table by the President is too short. “A State of Emergency is obviously very short; almost one-week since the SOE declaration was proclaimed by the President on the 8th day of April, 2020 has already elapsed. And Chapter IX of the Constitution governing Emergency power cannot be interpreted that the President can extend the period thereof anytime he/she wishes. The science of COVID-19 is that the incubation period is three to fourteen days and that even during the incubation period, an infected person, who might be asymptomatic will be able to spread the COVID-19 disease. The containment and mitigation period for the COVID-19 disease will obviously be longer than the infection period and the Containment and Mitigation Period; and that is why, instead of a State of Emergency for four months as of the 8th day of April 2020 is proposed.”
The Senate is also poised to agree with the President and give their blessing to approving the establishment of a Special Presidential Advisory Committee on COVID-19 headed by the President. The mandate of that committee is to coordinate the government’s fight against COVID-19, to contain and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and to explore ways and means to help ease the economic challenges posed by the disease.
Adjustment Seeks Protective Gears for Health Workers
A portion of the Senate draft is advocating for the Weah administration to commit a minimum of US$35 million to support preparedness and response, protective gears for health workers. Additional and adequately functioning treatment centers; pay for more contract tracers and train them; pay health workers more money to encourage them to care for patients; establish triages that separate people with coronavirus from people with other sicknesses to reduce the infection rate.”Excerpts from Draft Senate Modification to President Weah’s SOE Bill
Additionally, the Senate is also preparing to agree with the President on the issue of quarantine. Explaining their rationale for this, the Senate draft states:
“Quarantine for only 21 days is too short to detect infected person and to contain and mitigate spread of the COVID-19 disease. Quarantine period for 45 days is proposed as reasonable.”
The Senate also appears set to give its approval to the Food Support for Affected Household as contained in the National Response Strategy, which includes the appropriation of US$25 Million of government revenues and the sourcing of an additional US$10 million from the World Bank.
A portion of the Senate draft is advocating for the Weah administration to commit a minimum of US$35 million to support preparedness and response, protective gears for health workers.
“Additional and adequately functioning treatment centers; pay for more contract tracers and train them; pay health workers more money to encourage them to care for patients; establish triages that separate people with coronavirus from people with other sicknesses to reduce the infection rate.”
The Senate is also requesting the government to commit a minimum of $10 million for procurement of test kits, pharmaceuticals, treatment equipment, and increased bed capacity.
Additionally, the Senate is counter-proposing that government cut spending in goods and services, transfers, and capital investment to compensate for larger spending related to the COVID-19 crisis – and that funds should be managed in collaboration with WHO and other international agencies with the capacity to deliver items in a timely manner.
Senators are also suggesting that the proposal to re-allocate US$15M of the 2020/21 National Budget to pay Government Domestic Debt is a good stimulus for the economy. “However, this intervention must be tempered against availability of funds and vendors must be prioritized according to the most pressing needs of the current fight against COVID-19. That, in light of these facts, the approval of this proposal be tabled and the President, within seven (7) days, present a detailed payment plan outlining (1) sources of funding, (2) specifics of debts to be paid, (3) prioritized list of vendors in order of pressing need, and (4) details of monitoring, reporting, evaluating and auditing mechanisms.”
Suspension of Surcharge Regulation Under Consideration
Senators are supporting the proposal to suspend the Surcharge Regulation that imposes an additional charge on imported goods that are also manufactured in Liberia hereby approved with the modification that it is extended to twenty-four (24) months instead of the proposed six (6) month period. “Given the current economic situation and the major losses being incurred by businesses, some businesses will be in the infancy of recovery six months from now, with many not having even started the recovery process. Extending the suspension period will ensure that the intended outcome is achieved.”
Senators also appear to give its backing to the proposal to immediately suspend the Pre-Shipment Inspections (PSI) penalty until otherwise notified is approved.
The Senate is also seeking interventions on both the public health and social interventions, a detailed budget with narratives for each intervention and clear demonstration of where the resources will come from to fund the programs earmarked, considering revenue performance to date and cash in the bank. This will ensure that the mandate is not unfunded thereby creating more problems than it tried to solve. “Clearly and sufficient safeguards to ensure that critical commodities like rice, petrol and medicines will not run short in supply and that consumers will be protected from price gouging.”
The Senate is also seeking detailed and specific targeted interventions on: community monitoring & policing to ensure early detection, mechanism for early detection, comprehensive quarantine measures considering the various categories of symptoms in the population – suspected cases, close contacts, confirmed cases; a procurement plan thoroughly vetted by all relevant stakeholders and addresses and considers all necessary material provision requirements – both medical and non-medical.
No Roadblock on Domestic Debt
Regarding the Government’ Domestic Debt Program, the Senate draft signals that the program will also be approved. The proposal for the management of the program, in conjunction with support from the International Monetary Fund(IMF), as contained in the National Response Strategy.
The Tax Policy and Administration Stimulus Program proposed by the President which proposes the immediate suspension of the Pre-Shipment Inspection(PSI) of all imports and the penalties associated with failure or refusal to have imports inspected before shipment to Liberia, is also on course for approval under the draft in possession of FrontPageAfrica.
A moratorium on that includes a stipulation that during the period of the SOE, all loan payments shall be suspended, and no interest shall accrue on any loan payments to any creditor. “At the end of the period of the SOE Declaration, debit balances on all loan payments shall be the same as the date of this Joint Resolution.”
Also, the Senate is proposing that all public sector employees be paid their full salaries and benefits during the period of the State of Emergency. “Special incentives may however be arranged for any public sector employee who is required by the agency for whom he/she works to appear to work during the period of the Stay Home Order. The ministry of Finance and Development Planning is mandated to work with any agency of the Liberian government to arrange incentives for those employees who are required to appear to work and who appear to work during the period of the Stay Home Order.”
Another stipulation states that all private sector employers are required to pay those employees who don’t go to work or aren’t required to work two-thirds of their salaries and benefits. Provided however, no transportation benefit shall be paid to an employee who is not required by the employer to work.
The Senate is also adjusting the President’s proposal to state that any disbursement from the Emergency COVID-19 Relief Fund should be approve by a resolution of not less than four members of the committee and shall be restricted to only purchases of supplies and materials for the most vulnerable populations.
Not Much Modifications in Lower House Draft
In the lower house, members appear poised to pass all key components of the President’s proposal with minor adjustments, mandating the wearing of protective wears in public.
The lower house draft stipulates:
The State of Emergency and all restrictions imposed by the President pertaining to the movement of persons and hours applicable is hereby approved and modified only to the extent that all persons appearing in public streets and buildings must wear protective devices that covers at least the nose and mouth.
“My concern is, how are we deriving at all of these packages WITHOUT knowing the current revenue envelope? How and from where do we source the funding expected to fund all these things? Have we heard from the Ministry of Finance and LRA? Have we heard from the managements of LEC and LWSC as to the possibility of supplying free electricity and water?”Senator Abraham Darius Dillon(Liberty Party, Montserrado County)
That the initial request for US$25 million is hereby approved for the Food Support Program, and that subsequent expansion of the program through the allocation of additional funds must be submitted to the legislature for re-appropriation.
That the Electricity and Water Support program is approved; that the Market Women and Small Informal Petty Traders Bank Loan Program is approved, that the request to re-appropriate US$15 million for Government Domestic Debt is approved with priority given to payment of debt owed to domestic media.”
As members of both houses continue to debate and fine-tune the draft, Senator Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence told FrontPageAfrica Thursday, that the draft is still being worked on because there were a lot of unnecessary points which are being removed.
Some Reservations from Senator Dillon
Senator Abraham Darius Dillon (Liberty Party, Montserrado County) expressed concerns Thursday about the president’s proposal and the working draft.
“My concern is, how are we deriving at all of these packages WITHOUT knowing the current revenue envelope? How and from where do we source the funding expected to fund all these things? Have we heard from the Ministry of Finance and LRA? Have we heard from the managements of LEC and LWSC as to the possibility of supplying free electricity and water?”
According to Senator Dillon, the security component should be clearly defined. Lockdown or curfew?
Pondered the Senator: Have we clearly identified those to directly benefit from food supplies or will it be general to all? Have we seen a listing of Vendors to be paid? What service/s did they provide? Any limit or restriction on time service was provided or payment can be made to anyone as far back as 1920? What will be the floor or ceiling of payment to vendors? Who or what qualifies the vendors? Health Workers …. Incentives. Ventilators. PPEs. Masks. Gloves and other needed and required medical supplies. I am here wondering how these can be financed and implemented without all the needed information and proper advice from the relevant authorities.”
As the number of cases continue to rise, it is unclear how much time both houses will need to brim over the President’s proposal. One lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity Thursday said, “It is possible that all the small – and big issues – would be resolved before Friday.”