Liberia: President Weah Submits State of Emergency Plan to Legislature
Honorable Bhofal Chambers
House of Representatives
Dear Mr. Speaker:
I present my compliment and write to inform you of the devastation caused by the Coronavirus pandemic around the world. Globally, almost 2 million people have been infected by the virus, tens of thousands have died, and many more tens of thousands are predicted to lose their lives. The pandemic has overwhelmed the capacity of advanced healthcare systems, and has brought the economies of both developed and developing nations almost to a complete halt.
Here in our own country, the pandemic is already having serious impact. Health authorities have put the number of active cases to date at 48, with five recorded deaths and three recoveries. Linked to the 48 active cases are hundreds of persons who are presently under quarantine in designated Personal Observation Centers (POCs) around the country, or being contact-traced across various communities. Preliminary economic impacts have been observed in the form business slowdown with its passthrough impact on Government revenue. For March 2020, fiscal authorities have observed a 50 percent drop in expected revenue and are projecting revenue decline from COVID-19 to be more than $32 million, or more than one percent of GDP, for the remainder of FY 2019/20.
Mr. Speaker, these impacts will have serious implications for both our heath delivery system and for our macroeconomy, which had seen strong improvements in recent months prior to the onset of COVID-19. As with most countries around the world, economic growth will be negative for 2020, and the Government is frantically working to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on the wider economy.
Recognizing these risks, the Government was quick to move against COVID-19. Informed by the devastation caused by the Ebola Viral Disease in 2014, and building from our national experience from that epidemic, the Government took prompt actions in early February 2020 to prepare against COVID-19, quarantining arrivals from highly affected countries long before any other country in Africa began such action. This was the preparedness stage that saw the mobilization of various Government entities and serious coordination with our development partners. The Star Base facility was renovated as a POC to host arrivals from highly infected countries, and the Government began using hotels as POC during the preparedness stage.
At a Joint Cabinet and Development Partner update on Liberia’s preparedness held on March 13, 2020 in the cabinet room, the Government announced a Special Presidential Advisory Committee on Coronavirus (SPACOC) over which I have personally presided as Chairman, mobilizing the entire Government around the fight against COVID-19, dealing with operational and strategic issues and challenges.
I have also instituted the Executive Committee on Coronavirus (ECOC) as the operational arm of SPACOC that will focus on community initiatives and outreach as well as on logistical coordination. ECOC will support the national health and epidemiological systems built by the Liberian Government and its development partners after Ebola, using an all of Government, all-of-Society, risk-based and science-based approach that has proved highly successful against COVID-19 in the People’s Republic of China and in other Asian countries.
Mr. Speaker, please join me in profoundly thanking our international development partners for rallying to Liberia’s assistance during this difficult time in the world. Confronted by COVID-19 themselves, several of our bilateral partners are pledging to fund gaps in our National Response Plan, and are realigning resources in their current program to help with the COVID-19 fight in Liberia. The Government is working with several embassies and bi-lateral aid agencies to support and strengthen our National Response.
Our multilateral partners are also generously coming to our aid. The World Bank is providing $17 million to partly finance the National Response Plan. The European Union is moving to rapidly disburse at different stages almost $15 million from both pre-COVID-19 budget support and reallocations. The Government is working with the African Development Bank to determine the Bank’s support to Liberia under AfDB’s recently announced $10 billion COVID-19 support to African countries.
The Government has also requested support under the International Monetary Funds’ Catastrophic Containment Relief (CRR) Trust, which provides grants for debt relief for the poorest and most vulnerable countries that are hit by catastrophic natural or public health disasters. The Government is also requesting support under the IMF’s Rapid Credit Facility, which will provide general budget support. The full extent of these packages of support are being developed.
But Mr. Speaker, even as we move to mobilize resources and engage our development partners to support our National Response and Economic Recovery Plans, and even as our health teams have worked assiduously on testing, contact tracing, community outreach and on various aspects of our national response, you will have to agree with me that COVID-19 has now entered a new phase in Liberia and requires an enhanced and elevated national response. The evolution of the disease in communities means that the dynamics of our management of the disease has to significantly change, requiring much stronger additional measures to delay and contain the spread of this highly contagious virus, in order to keep our people safe.
Evidence of community spread means our people face a very serious risk in their day to day interactions, since the one fact that is known about the disease is that it is spread mainly through person-to-person interaction. Densely populated urban centers and market places where a mass of people interact daily are a dreadful recipe for transmission and have to be avoided for a period of time. COVID-19 is more contagious than Ebola, so the level of human interactions permitted during Ebola cannot be allowed to go in the current crisis.
Stopping the spread requires freezing mass interaction for a period of time, to enable health authorities easily identify and reach infected persons and prevent them from infecting others. If this infection chain is not broken, Mr. Speaker, the crisis will lead to more deaths, and overrun our already strained healthcare and economic capacity. Evidence form countries show that as the number of COVID-19 infections grow, so does the number of deaths, and these two are sufficient to paralyze our society with fear, and collapse our social and economic systems, which will lead to further hardship.
Mr. Speaker, the combination of the above ‘facts and circumstances’ means Liberia is presently at war with an invisible enemy that presents a ‘clear and present danger’ to our lives, to our way of life as Liberians, to our economy and to our nation. For the good of public health and safety and for safety and health of each individual Liberian, we must all pay the smaller price in limiting our freedoms to move as we choose and the smaller costs in business losses or declining Government revenue for a brief period to avoid paying the bigger and higher price that comes with social, economic and national collapse.
This is why, Mr. Speaker, in keeping with my first order of business as President of the Republic of Liberia, which is to protect and safeguard the lives of the Liberian people, I sought recourse to the authority granted me under Articles 85, 86, 87, and 88 of the Liberian Constitution, and after due consultation with you Mr. Speaker of the House of Representatives and with the President Pro-Tempore of the Liberian Senate, as required by law, I have declared a State of Emergency, that commenced on Friday, April 10 at 11:59 PM, in and throughout the Republic of Liberia, for a period of three (3) weeks, renewable until the threat to Liberia from the Covid-19 virus no longer exists, or is reasonably contained.
Mr. Speaker, pursuant to Article 88 of the Liberian constitution, I am required to lay before the Honorable National Legislature the “facts and circumstances” appertaining to the declared State of Emergency within seven days as of April 8, 2020. In my judgement, I have done so in the preceding pages and pray the Honorable National Legislature finds ample justification for concurrence.
Under the declared this State of Emergency, all 15 counties in the Republic of Liberia are hereby quarantined from 11:59 p.m. on Friday, April 10, 2020, until further notice. Movements between counties are strictly prohibited. No person shall be permitted to enter or leave or in any way cross the borders of one county into another, except for Montserrado County and Margibi County which are quarantined as a single unit.
As a further measure under this State of Emergency, all Liberians and residents within the borders of Montserrado County, Margibi County, Nimba County, and Grand Kru County are to STAY AT HOME for the next 14 days, beginning at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, April 10, 2020.
Throughout this period, residents may leave home only for essential journeys for reasons of health and food, which should be restricted to local communities only, and be limited to a single person per household for a maximum of one hour.
Exceptions shall be made for persons who are designated as essential staff in government offices, banks, supermarkets, and other business establishments such as hotels, petrol stations, and health facilities to travel directly to work and return directly home. All such commercial activities are to be closed no later than 3:00 p.m.
All non-essential businesses and Government offices will remain closed, with the exception of essential businesses, health facilities and a few key government offices, such as the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Central Bank of Liberia, the National Port Authority, the Liberia Revenue Authority, the Monrovia City Corporation, and the Liberia Broadcasting System, and accredited media, where only a limited number of staff will be given passes to work.
Other government offices may be designated as exempt based on the essential nature of their function. Meanwhile, non-exempt government employees and people in the private sector are encouraged to work from home.
Also exempted from these restrictions are: (a) production, distribution, and marketing of food, beverages, pharmaceuticals, and medicine; (b) environmental and sanitation activities; (c) members of the security forces assigned to lawful duties; (d) essential staffs of electricity, water, telecommunications, banking, and hotels, and (e) the staff of fuel stations.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs has been instructed to engage the leaders of the various marketing associations in counties under this STAY-AT-HOME order to make satisfactory arrangements about the operation of markets during this period, so as to ensure the observance of social distance and enhanced hygiene protocols.
In all other counties not under this STAY-AT-HOME order, residents are to stay within their respective local communities until otherwise ordered.
I have ordered the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Liberia and the Chairman of the National Joint Security to enforce this STAY-AT-HOME order beginning as of the effective date.
All Liberians and foreign residents are encouraged to abide by these measures, even under the most difficult circumstances. We should all learn from the experience of Ebola. We all will have to give up certain freedoms for the time-being, until we can get through this. This is why we have found it necessary to declare this State of Emergency.
However, Honorable Speaker, while the desire to protect and save the lives of Liberians as contained in the above ‘facts and circumstances’ provide ample justification for the State of Emergency, the Government is equally under obligation to address social and economic ramifications deriving therefrom.
The State of Emergency has imposed necessary economic costs on Liberians and the broader economy in order to achieve a public health and a public safety objective. Depending on the course of events in the coming weeks and months, even our constitutional electoral processes may be impacted, an outcome that would require due consideration from your Honorable selves. These COVID-19 costs may well undermine the public health and public safety aims of the State of Emergency if the costs are not addressed, making it necessary to bring to the attention of the Honorable National Legislature some measures and programs that are necessary to complement measures announced in the State of Emergency.
This section of my letter will summarize the key components of these programs and measures. Their details will be worked out between our respective branches of Government. Let is also be made clear, Mr. Speaker, that as a country we cannot afford full extensions of these measures, but through a combination of national budget reallocations and planned support from bilateral and multilateral partners, we can derive the resources to support the affected counties to achieve our public health and safety aims in the current COVID-19 crisis.
Food Support for Affected Households
I propose that for the remainder of FY 2019/20 the National Legislature re-appropriate the amount of US$25 million to support food distribution to households in designated affected counties for the period of 60 days. The full costing to cover this period in affected and other areas may add up to around $40 million. The World Bank has agreed to finance this gap off-budget to the tune of US$10 million, using resources reallocated from existing projects.
With this, Mr. Speaker, we have a full package of food support to our people pending your consideration and approval of this proposal. Prior to my declaration of the State of Emergency, the Government had engaged with relevant partners to address this situation, knowing it would be difficult to achieve the aims of any pronounced STAY-AT-HOME order without a concomitant support for the livelihoods of Liberians remaining at home in affected areas.
The Government intends to have the World Food Program implement this program in collaboration with the Government. To ensure this, I am setting up a COVID-19 Food Support National Steering Committee comprising relevant Government entities and the international development community to provide oversight over this process. This set-up is in keeping with the All-of-Government and All-of-Society approach we are adopting in this stage of our management of COVID-19. The Steering Committee will have an oversight role, will prescribe rules and address challenges, while the WFP will implement the program.
Electricity and Water Support during Stay-at-Home Program.
A few days ago, the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) received a check of US$4 million dollars, representing a significant settlement of Government arrears to the entity. This is one of the largest single payments on Government electric bill in years. The LEC has submitted a COVID-19 electricity program that will be funded by this money. I propose to the Honorable Legislature that Government takes up the electricity bill of households in the affected counties for the duration of the STAY-AT-HOME order. I propose a similar support for the Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation.
Market Women and Small Informal Petty Traders Bank Loan Program
It is clear that several market women and small informal petty traders, who have loans with commercial banks and other creditors, will suffer significantly from the loss of number of selling and trading days occasioned by the Stay-At-Home order. The Government is working with lenders to show some understanding to our vulnerable borrowers. In this direction, I propose to the Honorable Legislature that the Government fully pays the loans owed by market women, and petty and small traders in affected counties as part of the requested budgetary reallocation. This will be a strong stimulus to these individuals. They have built their businesses from scratch with little or no help from the Government and deserve protection during these trying times. This program will further help the banks to increase lending to new borrowers.
Government Domestic Debt Program
As I mentioned in my State of the Nation address in January, the Liberian Government holds a large stock of domestic debt spanning more than a decade. Servicing this debt has always been a challenge for Government and is a drag on the economy. In the current budget, we do not have appropriation to service these obligations. Prior to COVID-19, the Government was developing a program to reconcile and validate the existing stock of domestic debt. We have reached a consensus with the IMF under the IMF-supported Program that the payment of domestic arrears owed to vendors and suppliers of Government should be of high priority amid COVID-19’s impact on the economy, and is a form of economic stimulus. Considering the tight fiscal space for the remainder of the current fiscal year, I propose that the National Legislature appropriates at least US$ 15 million in the FY 2020/21 National Budget to begin servicing these arrears incurred in the last several years. Rules around servicing the recognized and validated stock of domestic debt under this program will be developed by the Government in collaboration with the IMF, as part of the request under the Rapid Credit Facility currently under consideration.
Tax Policy and Administration Stimulus Program.
The Government is suspending for the period of six months the Surcharge Regulation that imposes an additional charge on imported goods that are also manufactured in Liberia. When instituted, this will encourage more importation without the additional cost that the surcharge imposes.
The Government is also immediately suspending the Pre-Shipment Inspections (PSI) penalty until otherwise notified. PSI requires importers to do an assessment of their consignment overseas (pre-shipment inspection) before importation.
Other ideas or Programs to be suggested by the National Legislature
Mr. Speaker, I am aware that members of the National Legislature are brimming with similar ideas and I am eager to receive these as part of the approved.
Mr. Speaker, in the preceding pages, I have provided both ‘facts and circumstances’ surrounding the declared State of Emergency and programs that address social and economic issues arising from that declaration. Based on the above cited reasons, I, George Manneh Weah, President of the Republic of Liberia, in keeping with the Articles of the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia as stated herein, request that the Legislature convenes in joint session of the both Houses to pass a resolution endorsing the State of Emergency as declared on April 8, 2020.
Please accept my sentiments of high esteem with the hope of unified strength to fight and defeat this Coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
George Manneh Weah Sr.