First coronavirus cases in Liberia bring total in Africa to 1,000

Government agent flew in from Switzerland and infected domestic worker after ignoring regulations. Mr Nathaniel Blama, Director of Environmental Protection Agency, has since been suspended from his position in government by President Weah.

The article below was written by George Poe Williams, a nurse and General Secretary of the National Health Workers Union of Liberia (NAWHUL).

Mr. Nathaniel Blama, Director of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), returned to Liberia from Switzerland on 13 March and was tracked at the airport with a high temperature. He refused to conform to government regulations and went home, later testing positive for coronavirus. A domestic working for Mr Blama tested positive for COVID-19 during subsequent contact tracing and testing, making it the second case in Liberia.

Mr Blama has since been suspended from his position in government by President Weah. Three days later the country recorded its third COVID-19 positive case, this time a 63-year-old female, resident in Italy but currently visiting back home and reportedly seen interacting with a friend.

Until then and even now, the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL), in collaboration with the Ministry of Health continues to reassure the public of its preparedness to handle the global pandemic, calling for calm among the population while encouraging people to respect the precautionary measures put in place. Contact tracing and testing of all contact persons continue, with those who tested negative undergoing special quarantine awaiting their second test in seven days.

Meanwhile, the workers' union was concerned at the growing number of COVID-19 cases in a relatively short time and decided to speak out, given the inconsistency between the health authorities’ “preparedness” and the prevailing circumstances on the work floor.

NAHWUL pointed out the exclusion of the union's representatives in the planning of the response strategy of COVID-19 in the same manner as did the past regime.

NAHWUL, through its deputy secretary-general, comrade Deemi T. Dearzrua, e couraged citizens to follow the precautionary measures as announced by WHO and the Liberian Health Authorities, noting that beyond preventive measures the health system could do little regarding a treatment plan due to the lack of essential drugs, personal protective equipment (PPE), electricity, running water, oxygen and other supplies, which together with insufficient logistics are making an adequate response to COVID-19 impossible.

NAHWUL pointed out the exclusion of the union representatives in the planning of the response strategy of COVID-19, as was the case already for the past regime which led to the death of over 200 health workers during the 2014-15 Ebola Crisis. The union called on the Government of Liberia and its partners to include the workers in strategic planning, with refresher trainings for frontline workers, adequate supply of PPE and provision of essential drugs across the country.

Within 24 hours of the union press conference, the Ministry of Health released a Declaration of National Health Emergency listing 16 rules and ending with the statement: “Official information and communication on the COVID-19 virus shall only be announced by the MOH/NPHIL and MICAT. All citizens, residents and visitors are required to abide by these rules. The Ministry of Justice, as head of the joint security, shall enforce these rules without prejudice”.

While the union of the frontline workers in the combat against this global virus outbreak welcomes the government`s efforts to call its citizens and residents alike to order in observance of the precautionary measures, it totally differs with the harsh and intimidatory ending note of the declaration.

NAHWUL sees this as not only a strategy to curb spreading of misleading information by unscrupulous people, but also to intimidate the workers from speaking out against bad working conditions during the crisis, which its members note with grave concern will have fatal repercussions, as was the case of the Ebola Crisis in 2014. NAHWUL vows to never again witness the disaster that befell its members in 2014, and will thus remain constructively engaged and never compromise the safety of its members.