Liberia: A Call Coming a Bit Too Late – COVID-19 Voluntary Testing Should Have Started Started with the President, Long Ago

According to the Minister of Health, she has noticed that citizens are not coming forth to give samples for testing, therefore, she decided to lead by example by going for a voluntary test in an effort to encourage citizens to come forward to do the same

MONROVIA – From the onset of the coronavirus discovery in Liberia, things began to go amiss. It started with the manner and form in which the first pronouncement was made, the fight over name-calling, the refusal of key officials, top health workers, to voluntarily “go for testing” and the ill-prepared manner in which the state of emergency was announced – everything was a clear sign of lack of leadership in the COVID-19 fight.

By Lennart Dodoo, [email protected]

On Sunday, May 17, the Minister of Health, Dr. Wilhemina Jallah flanked by the Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francis Kateh, followed by the WHO Representative to Liberia Peter Clement, Dr. Desmond William head of US Center for Disease Control (CDC) in West Africa and Liberia and USAID Resident Coordinator trooped to the sample collection center at the Samuel Kayon Doe Sport Complex for voluntary COVID-19 test.

Health Minister Jallah said the move was triggered by the realization that citizens were not coming out for testing. She described the move as “servant leadership”.

“We are here to have our samples collected because we want the Liberian people to know that it’s important that all of us have our samples collected so that we can know our results so that if we are positive we can be isolated that the transmission of the virus is broken,” she told journalists on Sunday morning.

The Health Minister stressed that “If people stay back and do not come for their sample collection, the disease will stay in Liberia for a very long time. So, we are here to show you that if we can do it, you can do it, too. We just want to encourage all of you – church members, media people, people in the market, people everywhere – that it’s very important that you have your samples collected.”

She said their decision to go for testing is an example for others to follow.

As of May 16, 2020, Liberia had recorded 226 confirmed cases, 85 of those are active. There has been 21 deaths and 120 recoveries.

However, the culture of doubt continues to permeate some societies in Liberia. Some citizens still hold the belief that coronavirus is a hoax, others believe it’s a designed scheme by the government to attract funds for their personal use.

In dealing with such a society, it was therefore imperative that President Weah who is idolized by his followers to have led by example in the quest for voluntary testing, some of his critics have suggested.

“We are here to have our samples collected because we want the Liberian people to know that it’s important that all of us have our samples collected so that we can know our results so that if we are positive we can be isolated that the transmission of the virus is broken”

– Dr. Wilhemina Jallah, Minister of Health

Where the Leadership first failed

In April, the head of the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL) Dr. Mosoka Fallah, who began the COVID-19 fight alongside Dr. Jallah, was called on by the public to voluntarily check his COVID-19 status. This was after some staff of the Institute had been tested positive for coronavirus.

Though conducting the test wouldn’t have hurt him in anyway, Dr. Mosoka Fallah insisted that he was not showing any symptom of coronavirus and if he did, he was going to make it public.

And though Dr. Fallah may not have shown any symptom that might be linked to coronavirus at the time, his adamant posture at time on testing, cast doubt over the testing process and the treatment possibilities.

Worse of all, Dr. Fallah mentioned on the state broadcaster that quarantine centers “were not meant to be decent, they are meant to serve as a deterrent”.

The propensity of this statement might have made scores of people shy away from the testing process.

Dr. Fallah, drawing his conclusion from available data at the time, is also on record for saying that coronavirus has so far proven to be the disease of the “rich” and famous people.

World Leaders Test Positive for COVID-19

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tested positive for coronavirus on March 27 and was quarantined at his home. However, Johnson’s condition worsened and had to be hospitalized and moved into intensive care on April 6. The government said that the decision was a precaution and that he had been in good spirits earlier in the day

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, wife of Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, had tested positive for the coronavirus on March 12 after she fell ill after returning from a trip to London. Justin also went to self-quarantine following the positive test. However, she recovered from the illness on March 29.

Israel’s health minister, who has had frequent contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tested positive for COVID-19, Iran’s health ministry informed in April. Yaakov Litzman and his wife, who also has contracted the virus have been kept in isolation.

“If everybody sits complacently in their different neighborhood and thinks they’re different or they’re special – COVID-19 has no respect.”

– Dr. Wilhemina Jallah, Minister of Health

Prince Charles was tested positive with COVID-19 after he showed mild symptoms on March 25. He recovered from the infection and came out of self-isolation on 30 March. In a video address, the prince said although he had recovered, he was still practicing social distancing.

Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that he tested positive for coronavirus on March 27, just 2 hours later the British PM tested positive.

Begona Gomez, the wife of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, had tested positive for coronavirus on 15 March, the prime minister’s office said, adding that both were doing fine.

Australia’s home affairs minister Peter Dutton said he had tested positive on March 13 and was admitted to hospital in the northeastern state of Queensland

Why Did Weah Refuse?

For many, the voluntary testing today by the health minister, the chief medical officer and key international players is long overdue. But more to that is that it should have been led by the President, followed by his cabinet in order to boost the confidence of the citizens.

But calls from the public for the President to submit for COVID-19 test was seen as a political propaganda by members of the opposition bloc rather than a patriotic one.

These calls, however, came about when it was discovered that the former head of the Liberia Drugs Enforcement Agency (LDEA) Marcus Soko, who had sat in a national security briefing with officials who had been close to the President, had contracted the virus and subsequently died of it.

Shortly after his death, Justice Minister Frank Musa Dean and Information Minister Lenn Eugene Nagbe who had been in very close proximity with the President the week after, both tested positive for COVID-19.

The Deputy Inspector General of Police for Administration, Ms. Sediatu Reeves, also tested positive.

There were speculations that a host of other government officials had contracted the virus, including the President. And then, there was the need for testing.

Those speculations were soon termed as “fake news” with threat coming the Solicitor General to shutdown media institutions reporting news deemed as “fake”.

In it all, President Weah still did not turn up for testing. Rather, he was seen shortly after distributing face masks to members of the joint security in the streets to enforce the lockdown.

In his defense, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kateh said it was the prerogative of the President to go for testing or not. He said, the President is considered a low-risk and would there not be subjected to mandatory testing.

Dr. Kateh: “From all of our analyses, His Excellency (Weah) is at low risk and so, we cannot ask him to give any sample. If he thinks that he needs to get his specimens done like any other citizen; you can also come and say look, I need my sample collected because I am not feeling too well; definitely we are under obligation to do that. If His Excellency asks us to do that, we will do that. But at this point medically, we see no reason why we should ask him to give his sample. The President is well and he is in full command of fighting Covid-19 in this country”.

COVID-19 Has No Respect

The Health Minister’s statement that “If everybody sits complacently in their different neighborhood and think they’re different or they’re special – COVID-19 has no respect,” raises the question as to why the President and his cabinet did not take the lead in this voluntary testing?