By Julius Kanubah
Besides Liberia’s brutal civil war, there is nothing like an epidemic of Ebola Virus Disease that brings journalism and human life into a real sense of emotions, distressed and danger.
(Photo: DW correspondent Julius Kanubah interviews an Ebola Survivor in Liberia)
Few months ago, the political heat was cheerfully steaming up in Liberia as the country was bracing itself for its first post-war Special Senatorial Elections for half of the 30-member Upper House of the Legislature, the Senate.
The son of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Robert Sirleaf, was dominating the political sphere after he at last threw his hat in the Senatorial race for Monsterrado County, a province that hosts the capital, Monrovia, with a population of over 1.5Million. His foremost contender is George Weah, the most popular Liberian, who heads the main opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party.
However, in the twinkle of an eye, the political debate vanished and the likes of Robert Sirleaf, George Weah and other Senatorial aspirants are hiding in their corners, concerned for their lives just as the entire Liberian nation today.
That’s what the Ebola Virus Disease does to a developing country like Liberia, which has and is being poorly managed at almost all levels. Ebola – the world’s most lethal virus – has not just plunged Liberia into crisis and brought it down on its knees but has evidently exposed the Government, its insensitivity to the people and the general healthcare system of our country, Liberia.
Nearly five Months ago, that is in late March of this year, the Ebola Virus Disease was confirmed in Liberia. By then, only 3 deaths were reported. The case in Liberia was traced to a Liberian woman, residing in Foya District, Lofa County in Northern Liberia, who had returned from attending a funeral of a relative in neighboring Guinea. Her relative was thought to have died in a village in Guinea under mysterious circumstances like many others there.
In northern Liberia, this woman too got sick upon her return and later died under the same mystifying situation. Prior to her death, she interacted with family members, healthcare workers and her fellow community dwellers. Her funeral and burial were also performed as normally done in most parts of Liberia, where some rituals including washing of a dead body are observed by the living as a sign of respecting the deceased. With our tradition of gracing in numbers the funeral and burial of our dead where we closely interact by hugging, shaking hands, eating and drinking together, precaution is bare minimum.
So, after the burial of this Liberian woman, a common occurrence of a chain of illnesses resembling malaria; typhoid fever; headache; diarrhea and the likes became prevalent. Some of the sick were taken to the already less equipped medical centers while others gambled with traditional healers’ might. As most of our hardworking but sometimes sloppy healthcare workers attended to their needs, so too did they contract similar illnesses. The strange deaths that started to follow became a daily episode in the northern province of Lofa.
In the capital, Monrovia, Health and Political authorities were still underestimating and taking for granted the disastrous accident that was waiting to happen. That was highly not surprising as our country’s leadership is seemingly just as halfhearted as self-driven!
Our much-travelled President, Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in fact flew out of the country on her usual safari to the more developed world. As typical per her standards, she ran the country via telephone and internet with her redeemed aide, Morris Dukuly, Minister of Internal Affairs, who was placed in charge of the country as chair of the cabinet.
With Mrs. Sirleaf in the western world again pushing the case of Liberia for aid and investment, the Ebola Virus Disease made sufficient use of her absence to travel from Lofa County and spread further into at least eight other provinces. A young woman from the Harbel District at Liberia’s largest rubber plantation in Margibi County became a principle source of the spread of the virus in the capital and other parts. This young lady had attended the same funeral of her relative who went to Guinea for a memorial service and was thought to have died of Ebola in Lofa County. The capital was in panic as Health authorities confirmed the outbreak of the deadly virus in the city.
Sitting in Europe, the Executive Mansion (Liberian Presidency) issued what it called a “Special Statement by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on the Ebola Situation in the Country” in which she for the first time commented on the epidemic amid criticisms from Presidential wannabe Benoni Urey, who had requested the Liberian leader to cut short her trip and return to the country as her absence in the wake of the Ebola outbreak showed a lack of leadership and love of the citizenry.
“There’s No Need for Panic,” was the flimsy response by President Sirleaf on 5th April 2014.
She justified that: “My trip to Europe was planned well before the Ebola situation evolved. Before I left, I had proper consultations with the Minister of Health and his team. The situation was assessed. We felt that it was well under control; that the health team would continue to brief the nation and be very straight forward on what the situation was. We believe that while it is a concern, there is no need for panic. The situation has been managed very well by the Ministry of Health working with some of our international partners and we do not believe that one needs to do anything more than take precaution, follow the instructions and advice of the Ministry of Health team.”
From March to April, May, June, July and now the expiring August, the President, her leadership and her team have been seriously exposed. Their initial assessment and response to the Ebola situation was nothing more than a farce!
(Photo: Ebola survivors are given a certificate of clearance after they are cleared of the virus)
Nearly 600 innocent Liberians have so far lost their precious lives as hundreds more are fighting for survival at Ebola Treatment Centers across Liberia today. Everyone in Liberia is more than equally worried when this nightmare will end.
Just as Liberians are worrying, the country is rapidly being isolated likewise as major airlines have suspended operations to the nation in addition to some countries including Ivory Coast; Senegal; Gambia; Kenya and South Africa, barring anyone of Liberian nationality from entering their countries.
In Liberia meanwhile, an overnight curfew (9pm – 6am) is in full-swing just as a State of Emergency declared by President Sirleaf who is now using “extraordinary measures” including the suspension of “certain rights and freedoms”. As part of the measures, two large townships – the densely populated slum of West Point in Monrovia and Dolo’s town in Margibi – have been quarantined with no movements in and out. The deployment of fully armed military officers and other security forces in the sealed-off areas and other parts of the country is also visible.
And, a clash between some angry and confused quarantined residents of the dirt poor shantytown of West Point and armed security forces have also resulted to the firing of gunshots and use of teargas by the security forces as well as stone throwing by some of the residents. Three persons are thought to have sustained fatal bullet wounds with a 16-year old boy dying in pains of his wounds without medical care. Another apparent bullet hurt victim is fighting for his life as a bullet was removed from his stomach.
As if these sad events are not lessons for the regime to amend its strategy by ensuring civil community engagement, journalists are also feeling the pinch of the curfew and state of emergency of President Sirleaf and her Government. The Government has plainly told and warned journalists and the media in general that they “are not exempt” from the curfew hours which run from 9pm – 6am.
This latest undesirable action by President Sirleaf and her Government without doubt places journalists in a difficult situation to perform their duties to society, especially thoroughly checking on the nighttime actions and inactions of the security forces and the Government. The Government’s move also proves that it does not view journalists as genuine partners in the Ebola fight but rather as part of the problem. Hence, the Government wants security forces to deal with any journalists found outside after 9pm and before 6am.
Clearly, this is yet one of the worst wrong steps by President Sirleaf and her Government. It shows to the world, that the President who is a glorified freedom promoter is now muddying her professed credentials in tatters. What this also does is that, it threatens the existence of a democratic society where the media is given unhindered space to operate without fear of being forced into submission.
Never before in the recent history of Liberia – inclusive of the bitter civil war period (1979 -2003) – where fatal bullets were flying just as marauding rebel fighters were on their killing sprees, has journalists been exempt from performing their duties anytime of the day, least to mention the night hours.
It is a massive contradiction that during the darkest era of our civil unrest in Liberia that journalists were exempt during the curfew periods while in our new democracy, journalists are not being exempt, particularly under the eyes of a Nobel Peace Laureate. Utterly, it beats logic that tyrannical regimes value and respect the important works of journalist during a civil crisis than that of a celebrated democrat, struggling to contain a national health emergency.
No matter the restrictive nighttime measures, Liberian journalists will continue to operate within the ambits of societal good “In the Heat of Death and Dread” as all Liberians and international partners collectively muster their efforts to fight the deadly Ebola Virus Disease, which has certainly cast a dark cloud over the leadership capabilities and motives of our country’s leadership.
Julius Kanubah is a multiple award winning journalist and commentator of Liberian journalism and media practices. He has reported for Deutsche Welle, Radio Netherlands Africa online desk, West Africa Democracy Radio, international and local Newspapers,radio and television organisations . He has serve as the Assistant Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia among others.