Spike in Coronavirus Cases Underscores Liberia Challenges

Amara Konneh who served as Finance Minister when Ebola struck Liberia and further devastated the economy acknowledged the deaths caused by Ebola would have been far less than the reported 5,000 deaths had the government properly informed the public

Two weeks ago, I published an op-ed in the acclaimed Foreign Policy Journal in which I attempted to share the lessons from our Ebola experience. One key lesson was the need to fight misinformation about the disease, minimization of the virus’ seriousness, and manipulation of facts about the severity of the outbreak. Early on in the Sirleaf Administration’s response effort, we were slow to prevent the spread of false information, mainly due to our lack of knowledge of what Ebola really was and how dire the situation could become. This is in part because we had no experience dealing with a public health crisis of this proportion and no capacity for testing and treatment.

By Amara Konneh, [email protected], Contributing Writer

The announcement Wednesday of three new confirmed COVID-19 cases in Liberia on the Government’s radio station ELBC validates our point about the challenge of knowing the true numbers of cases across Africa due to a lack of testing capacity and information sharing.

We started to turn the corner when we acknowledged our incapacity to deal with Ebola, began sharing information domestically and with our Mano River Union neighbors and other regional leaders. We built a national coalition anchored in the empowerment of local communities and ensured the full inclusion of women in that effort.

It worked! Not only did we prevent Ebola’s spread into Western Liberia, we also prevented the disease from expanding beyond Harbel into Buchanan, Nimba and the southeastern counties. We also disproved projections that 25,000 Liberians would be killed by the virus.

In the end, 5,000 of our our fellow citizens lost their lives. That number would have been far lower, had we better informed the public, earlier on.

President Donald Trump and his team of America’s top health officials said on Tuesday that, despite the measures that have closed schools, limited travel and forced people to stay at home, as many as 240,000 could still be killed by this virus inside the United States. As of this morning, there have been at least 3,900 virus-related deaths in the U.S.

The recent evacuations of US citizens by two chartered flights points to the increasing seriousness the US government attaches to this pandemic. It also raises more questions than answers about what we really know about COVID-19 in Liberia and what we are doing to stop its spread.

WHO has also reported (see attached) sharp increases in reported cases and COVID-19 related deaths in Africa in the last week by 400% and 600%, respectively. In the last 24 hrs alone, 242 new cases and 8 death have been reported. This doesn’t include Liberia’s reported 3 new cases.

On Wednesday, April 1, the National Public Health Institute of Liberia released new situation report disclosing additional three confirmed cases bringing the total to six

While we commend President Weah for the efforts he and his team are making to address this very serious challenge, we also encourage him to consider a robust information sharing initiative, starting with a weekly briefing with himself in the lead, surrounded by his health experts. These briefing should have the sole purpose of sharing information with the public about Government’s progress in flattening the curve, sharing the challenges faced in doing so, and providing tangible recommendations for safety precautions Liberians can take. This is what other leaders around the world are doing.

Such awareness initiatives can do much to allay fears and empower people to protect themselves. Without them, fear and the irresponsible behaviors it produces are sure to spread.

It also would not hurt to enlist former government officials with experience to this effort. While this is politically counterintuitive, it would be tactically expedient. These men and women still have as much of a duty to public service as any other Liberian. Let them help.

This last point is the most important. As with the previous Administration, this Government cannot fight COVID-19 without the help of women. They are the backbone and the lifeblood of our households, communities and businesses. They are the most committed and effective messengers and change agents. They are the most seamlessly networked and coordinated demographic in the republic. Excluding them at any level of this concerted effort would be a dire mistake.