– “Failure of all employees (public and private) to get vaccinated will lead to suspension without pay or dismissal,” Health Minister Dr. Jallah said.
The Ministry of Health (MoH) has announced fresh restrictions for unvaccinated Liberians including dismissal from jobs but falls short of backing a plan for mandatory vaccinations.
The new measures, according to the Ministry, require unvaccinated people to be banned from accessing all but the most essential businesses, supermarkets, restaurants, and government offices.
It also mandates private and public employees to suspend without pay or dismiss any employees who refuse to get vaccinated.
“All employees (public and private) must return to work and present proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Failure to get vaccinated will lead to suspension without pay or dismissal,” the Ministry, in a regulation issued from the Office of Minister Wilhelmina Jallah disclosed.
The Ministry of Health argued that the revised national Covid-19 regulation is pursuant to Chapter 14 of the Public Health Law of Liberia to aid the management of the pandemic and takes effect December 13 and remains until otherwise modified.
“All persons accessing government institutions, supermarkets, bars, restaurants, and nightclubs must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination,” the Ministry added. “Violation of these guidelines shall be dealt with in keeping with section 14.6 of the Public Health Law.”
The law states: “Any person who violates any of the provisions of this chapter or any of the rules made thereunder, shall upon conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding two hundred dollars or to imprisonment not exceeding thirty days, or to both such fine and imprisonment.”
And while the restriction may not be a direct announcement of mandatory vaccinations for all, it, however, tightened restrictions for unvaccinated people, many of whom are hesitant to take Covid-19 vaccines. Vaccine hesitancy among the adult population is high and has resulted in Liberia having one of the lowest vaccination rates on the African continent with just 587,829 being vaccinated, according to information provided by Adolphus Clarke, Director Expanded Program on Immunization at the Ministry of Health.
Of that number, Clarke said 477,276 people are fully vaccinated, the majority of them by the Johnson and Johnson single dose (395,094) and the rest, the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine. At present, only 13% of the country’s population has been vaccinated, which is a little over 500,000 against the Ministry target of 1.3 million-plus, which is 40% of the country’s population of approximately five million by the end of this year.
This data is based on information provided by Clarke at a press briefing at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism on Nov. 30.
“We want to vaccinate between now and December 31, 2021, at least 40% of the entire country's population. Liberia has a population of approximately 5.5 million people. We have just been able to reach a little over 500,000 and still have 1.3 million-plus to vaccinate,” Clarke said back then.
As in other countries in Africa and around the world, fears of side effects and rumors questioning the safety of the vaccine, or claiming that it causes impotence, have led to mistrust among the population.
Running out of time
And with the Covid-19 vaccines lasting up to six months before expiring, the Ministry of Health appears to be under pressure to reach its 40% target by the end of December, especially as the widely used Johnson and Johnson vaccines arrived in the country between August and September this year.
This means the vaccines have about a month or two from now to expire and the Ministry hopes it can administer all or risk being delisted from future donor-funded vaccine supplies. As a result, it has tightened restrictions among the unvaccinated before the available vaccines expire. Unlike Nigeria and other African countries, Liberia is yet to destroy a single dose of Covid-19 vaccines because of expiration issues – a record the Ministry of Health hopes to maintain – hence the new restriction against the unvaccinated, which includes threats of losing jobs.
According to a source at the Ministry of Health, the tight restrictions are geared towards pushing for uptake in vaccines among the country’s adult population in the weeks before the end of December, as the current rate dropped.
However, the restriction might be difficult to implement since questions are being raised as to what becomes of the work from home policies implemented by government agencies and most private institutions, for their respective employees who have opted not to take the Covid-19 test or the Covid-19 vaccine.
The restriction also comes at a time when the Omicron variant has dominated cases in Africa and is reported to reduce vaccine efficiency. Omicron was first discovered in South Africa and is now classified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization. Its presence in Nigeria and Ghana seems to have put Liberia’s Ministry of Health under immense pressure to act in protecting the health of the population.
But Data from South Africa, according to the WHO, indicates that the omicron variant might be less sickening than other coronavirus variants, but it has spread to about 60 countries, 10 of them in Africa as of December 11.
The WHO says almost half of the nearly 1,000 omicron cases reported globally are in Africa, with the heaviest burden borne by South Africa. Early evidence suggests it has a heightened re-infection risk and it is heavily mutated and that it is highly transmissible, according to VOA.
However, researchers are working to see whether the new coronavirus variant is more contagious, more debilitating, and more resistant to current vaccines and treatments than other variants. So far, Pfizer and BioNTech say preliminary data indicate that a booster or a third shot of their coronavirus vaccine is effective against the new variant and they are working on an omicron-specific vaccine.
Travel, social regulations
News about the new restriction comes as Liberia is about to celebrate its bicentennial anniversary, beginning in December 2021, marking 200 years since the first repatriates left New York and headed for Africa, landing in what is today Liberia in 1821.
The plan for the bicentennial has already begun with the government targeting about 1,000 persons from the Diaspora, with a good number of them being Liberians who are expected here this year.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health has lifted the 9:00 p.m. curfew on bars, nightclubs, cinemas, video clubs, and entertainment centers.
Instead, it requires proof of Covid-19 vaccination for entry and compliance with all health regulations, which includes wearing of masks at all times in public, ensuring social distancing of a minimum of three (3) feet, and frequent hand-washing with soap and clean water, or sanitizing hands with alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
The 9:00 p.m. ban and other health regulations have however been effective for the last six months and it is highly unlikely that this time around, the policy on mask-wearing and social distance in public will make any difference.
The Ministry of Health has also announced that all travelers coming to Liberia must present a negative PCR Covid-19 test result and that those aged 18 years and above must show proof of vaccination at arrival and before departure.
“All travelers arriving into Liberia will be tested upon arrival, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status. Incoming travelers that are confirmed positive of COVID-19 will be transferred to the nearest treatment unit or managed in home-based care as prescribed in the national COVID-19 protocols,” the Ministry said. “They must comply with guidance from health authorities and related health rules. All ports of entry and international travelers shall follow COVID-19 health regulation and travelers protocol.”
Non-compliance, the Ministry said, will lead to prosecution in accordance with Liberia’s Public Health Law. Also, funeral rites of COVID-related bodies shall be conducted only in funeral homes with strict observance of COVID-19 protocols.
“Transportation of the dead bodies of confirmed COVID-19 persons on commercial carriers in and out of the Republic of Liberia is hereby permitted,” the amended Ministry of Health Covid-19 regulation disclosed. “However, transportation of COVID-19 positive dead bodies on chartered carriers will require Ministry of Health permission to do so. All airlines and funeral homes are advised to take note of this permission and all other existing health protocols.”