Liberia: Experts, Stakeholders Want Structural Changes in Covid-19 Response

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MONROVIA – The integrity of the Incident Management System (IMS) and how that body is responding to the Covid-19 outbreak have come under immense criticisms since the Delta variant hit the country in May leading to a surge in cases.

The emergence of the new variant couple with its level of devastation has left stakeholders calling for structural changes in the national response team if the country is to stand any chance of triumphing over the pandemic.

 Medical experts and other stakeholders have expressed a lack of confidence in the work of the IMS after series of mistakes that brought doubt over the authenticity of the team’s work, especially its testing process. This shortcoming on the part of the IMS and the uncontrollable surge in the number of Covid-19 cases for the past two months angered many Liberians who questioned the competence of the team.

Some people, including medical experts and other stakeholders, began to call for structural reform to the national response, especially the composition of the team. Others are demanding for some of the IMS to relinquish some of its responsibilities to a more qualified and professional organization or group of people who will me more meticulous and effective.

 National Civil Society Council of Liberia (NCSCL) is one of many groups that feel wary over how health authorities are responding to the pandemic. The group wants the government to outsource the management of the coronavirus-testing information system amid reports of bribery and extortion by healthcare workers.

The council called on the IMS to name, shame, and penalize medical personnel who are compromising the country’s fight against the deadly virus. Liberia has recorded 148 coronavirus deaths from 5,396 cases as of July 26.

NPHIL said in a recent Facebook post it was reviewing its testing and result-processing methods as it believes some of its staffers were engaged in fraud. It said the workers were swapping COVID-positive samples.

NCSCL Chairperson, Loretta Pope Kai, described such fraud as “ungodly, uncivilized and abominable,” calling for an overhaul of the testing system.

“We at the NCSCL are requesting the government to immediately outsource the testing processes to a more professional and trusted group like the WHO, so as to save our people from dying unnecessarily,” Mrs. Kai said.  “We no longer have a modicum of trust and an iota of belief in those handling the testing and result processes.”

One moment of embarrassment for the IMS and the National Public Health Institute came in July last year when a renowned politician and political scientist, Professor Alaric Tokpa accused the health authorities of tampering with his coronavirus test result. The team reversed its previously released negative result for him.

Professor Tokpa, who chairs the National Democratic Coalition (NDC), told a press conference that his COVID – 19 test result was given to him with an official certificate proving that he was negative.

“But I was surprised when I received text from one of the health authorities that I was given different result and my official result came out positive,” he said.

The mismatched angered Professor Tokpa, causing him to take to social media and the mainstream media to express his disappointment in the testing process.

That incident, however, brought some dark cloud over the credibility of the Covid-19 testing process, with many insinuating that the fight was being politicized.

NPHIL former Director-General, Tolbert Nyenswah, have also expressed reservations about the composition of the IMS and its response methodologies. He blamed the IMS for the increase in cases.

“The health authorities are responsible for the latest spike of the virus due to their poor management of the outbreak,” Nyenswah told a popular talk-show in Monrovia last month, describing the situation as precarious.

Nyenswah headed the IMS during the Ebola outbreak (2014-2016), coordinating efforts that led to bringing an end to the worst Ebola epidemic ever known—a role that made many to regard him as Liberia’s Ebola hero. His heroism won him numerous prestigious national and international awards.

After the Ebola crisis, he led the establishment of NPHIL, the first in the country’s history, and became its First Director-General.

In reference to the current pandemic, Nyenswah said there is a need for a review of the COVID-19 crisis management team if Liberia is to have a chance of a downward shift in the situation.

 “We need to make changes in the IMS structure and bring the relevant people on board,” he said.

The IMS is headed by the Minister of Health, Dr. Wilhemina Jallah with NPHIL Director-General, Jane McCarthy, serving as a member of the team.

The United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) in July ranked Liberia as a level 4 country, discouraging travelers from coming to the country.

This was after the nation recorded 63 deaths between May and July, with the number of cases increasing by 3,254. A staggering 219 of those cases were recorded on July 3 alone, the highest daily surge of the virus since the pandemic started early last year.

 This spike in cases during this period, which triggered the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the country, became a cause for concern as many in the public panicked, wondering what might have triggered such an astronomical infection rate among the population. Skepticisms over the IMS’s work have since increased

The NCSCL, the largest conglomerate of civil campaign groups and grassroots organizations have therefore urged the government to select a firm with a better technology and track record to handle test information.

“This will contribute to the accuracy of the results from the beginning to the end of the process,” she said. “This, the council believes, will give Liberians and our international friends and partners confidence in the handling of the COVID-19 situation here in Liberia,” the group said. 

This story was produced with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), through the Mobilizing Media in the Fight Against COVID-19 in partnership with FrontPage Africa

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