Liberia: Why Community Engagement is the Best Measure Against COVID-19


In Grand Gedeh, Liberia, police officers chased a woman into her own home—into her own bedroom—and beat her. Her crime? Sitting outdoors without a mask.

By Dayugar Johnson, contributing writer

Elsewhere in the country, a government official was asked by a community guard to wash his hands before entering their community. He refused. Instead, he beat the guard for requesting that public officials abide by public health standards.

These cases were not unique. Videos circulating on social media across Liberia show police officers using violence to get people off the streets during lockdown, even flogging them in broad daylight.

Human rights advocates were concerned about these heavy-handed responses. Over half of Liberia’s 5 million people live hand-to-mouth. While waiting on a government stimulus package that has yet to materialize, people were starving under lockdown. And most of those who violated curfew were traders who walked long distances to get home after selling their goods in town. In short, Liberia’s government focused on enforcement while completely missing the mark on the response.

This was puzzling—a country just six years out from a devastating Ebola epidemic that claimed thousands of lives should be relying on recent experience to tackle the new challenge of COVID-19 with smart, proven strategies.

And yet, the government’s response to coronavirus is highly politicized and riddled with corruption—leading to rampant mistrust among the population. In the height of the pandemic—March to May—politicians were running crisis response like re-election campaigns, even distributing branded handwashing buckets with their own photographs plastered all over them. And though the Legislature promised to dedicate all resources to fight coronavirus, 30 senators received a $6,000 bonus in their pay, each. This happened while frontline responders lacked funds for personal protective equipment, drugs, and basic medical equipment, Senators were getting bonuses.

And dangerously, the government is neglecting to include trusted civil society and nonprofit organizations in their response—thereby failing to mobilize communities into action. Yet Liberia will only succeed in staving off the worst of COVID-19 if local communities take on the fight against the pandemic themselves.

As it stands, many people are ignoring recommendations from health authorities—compounded by the sloppy rollout of safety measures. And so far, response efforts remain piecemeal. Government representatives, politicians and ordinary citizens organized relief campaigns—some distributing rice, some donating hand sanitizer and soap, and others supplying handwashing buckets. But while these efforts remain uncoordinated, communities are not consistently getting what they actually need.

However, if communities can establish their own regulations in partnership with health authorities—and the government works with civil society and local nongovernmental organizations to ensure they’re provided personal protective equipment, food, and other goods they need to survive—the fight against COVID-19 will be much more successful.

This strategy has been proven effective. When the Ebola outbreak struck West Africa in 2014, Liberia experienced the very same issues—widespread mistrust of the government and suspicion of officials’ responses. But as the government began to partner with leaders of civil society and trusted NGOs, the country started to overcome the grim crisis.

Local organizations stepped up to engage with communities, and because the communities trusted those organizations, they took on the fight. They began to self-regulate, instituting their own rules and sanctions. Seeing this early success, the government integrated NGOs into the national effort to combat Ebola. At the same time, civil society organizations set up monitoring mechanisms to track communities’ needs, figuring out where gaps needed to be filled.

For instance, a group of Imams took on the fight against Ebola after seeing Muslim communities gravely affected, largely due to hands-on traditions around burial and caring for the sick. Witnessing the devastation, they found passages in the Quran that encouraged adapting traditional rites in times of pestilence. Armed with textual support, they started to educate their colleagues and followers—changing practices to reduce infection and establishing sanctions for anyone who didn’t abide by community rules. It marked a turning point. The communities took it upon themselves to institute safety protocols, and they were able to work together on a local level to stop the spread of the disease.

Liberia’s government must adapt this successful Ebola strategy for COVID-19 and other health emergencies of epidemic or pandemic proportions. It should stop the politics, involve public health professionals and give civil society organizations the opportunity to lead. If trusted partners are not at the helm of the response, communities across the country will continue to resist. And until communities are on board, we will go nowhere.