As you may have heard, Kent and I decided to not board the last plane out of Liberia on March 21th. After this flight left, the airport closed to public passenger airlines which means “staying put” indefinitely.
Outside of our work, we live a quiet and simple life here. We have a comfortable apartment, meaningful work, a large rooftop area and an uncrowded beach/ocean very close by. After watching what was happening in the rest of the world we knew that life as we knew it was likely to change, but we also knew that our comfort with simple routines would serve us well.
Like everywhere in the world it’s an uncertain time and as the UN predicts a difficult road ahead for developing countries we’re glad to be with our team in Liberia weathering this together. We all have different perspectives and when times get stressful or rumours abound it’s helpful for all of us to share information, dispel myths and collectively decide on the best way forward.
On a note of gratitude, all of us are very grateful for the large amount of soap we have on hand right now thanks to the soap-making workshop we hosted this past January with the Rocky Mountain Soap Company from Canmore. Since we had so much soap available we were also able to donate boxes of it to a quarantine facility that’s been erected in Liberia.
Only essential members of our team come to work right now (if they chose to) and, as a group, we’ve decided to distance ourselves appropriately, use our hand washing stations, sanitize commonly touched surfaces and wear face masks (how to take them on and off has been discussed). To ensure masks intended for hospital facilities make it there we’re getting masks made locally by The Bombchel Factory, a fashion business that employs an all-woman staff of Ebola survivors, rape victims and the deaf to sew their garments.
Liberia confirmed its first case of the coronavirus on March 16th. after a person returned from a conference in Geneva, Switzerland. At that time the Liberian government took the following actions:
On March 16, 2020, the Liberian authorities issued a declaration designed to enforce social distancing, including: closure of all schools, night clubs, cinemas, beaches, spas, mosques and churches; banning of all street selling and gatherings of more than 10 people; limits on admittance to banks and restaurants to five customers kept six feet apart; social distancing for health facilities and pharmacies (which are to remain open); and mandatory washing with soap and clean water at all public and private establishments. In addition, a hotline has been established for use by the population to report those exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
Up until recently the numbers remained low, and although they still are, they are beginning to rise. As of April 7th there have been 14 confirmed cases and 3 deaths.
As it becomes Liberia’s turn to face COVID-19 they can draw on the experience of countries who are currently managing this along with their considerable knowledge gained from the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak that killed 4,810 people in Liberia alone. The Ebola crisis left the country with a number of experienced contact tracers and new tracers are currently being trained.
In a recent interview with BBC news Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf reflected on the Ebola outbreak commenting, “Fear drove people to run, to hide, to hoard to protect their own, when the only solution is, and remains, based in the community.” The rest of her speech can be read here.
Asking people to distance themselves in a neighbourly and social country like Liberia can be challenging. Houses are used more as a place to sleep and store things than to sit in all day long. It’s normal to see people outside cooking, doing laundry, bathing their children and talking to their neighbours. In the more densely populated areas many people live in one-room dwellings lined up side by side which makes it difficult to distance oneself from their neighbour. Jingles about social distancing fill the radio stations and everyone is doing their best.
The government issued ban of petty trading on the streets yet this is how many people here earn their daily bread. Without a small daily income most folks won’t eat. Some people have the financial strength to stock up on extra food if illness forces them to stay home, but this is rare. It’s impossible to enforce an action that requires people to go without food, so in the less congested areas petty trading continues.
Hand washing is highly promoted and adhered to, but this doesn’t mean turning on the bathroom tap while ample water pours over soapy hands. Hand washing buckets have popped up in front of homes and businesses, but keeping those full means multiple trips to the community well. We’ve helped by establishing hand washing stations at the main roads that lead into our community so anyone entering has easy access. The community chairperson has recruited volunteers to work at the stations and they are diligently managing them.
With the loss of jobs from the temporary closure of non-essential business the government of Liberia has asked employers to remember the labour laws and obligations to pay out staff accordingly during this time of lay offs. There is no employment insurance here so when a job is lost there is no safety net, only family support.
Strive, our community resource center closed its door on March 16th with the rest of the educational facilities in the country. Thanks to the 2019 donations from the Universal Outreach community we are able to keep the staff from Strive on salary to ensure they can continue to provide for their families.
I’m going to leave it here for now as we have a newsletter coming out next month and I can update you on stories related to Universal Outreach programs at that time. I’m including a very short video from outside the compound this morning as it sums up the mood that is growing here as the country prepares for what’s to come. Fortunately, its dry season in Liberia so even though it’s overcast and raining today I know the sun will eventually shine again.