The Government of Liberia on Saturday, August 30, suddenly released the people of West Point after 10 days under quarantine.
Up to press time Sunday evening, all efforts to contact government officials for an explanation as to why the quarantine had been lifted so abruptly proved futile. Officials who did answer calls said only the Minister of Information, Lewis Brown, was authorized to answer that question.
The move on the township by Joint Security personnel followed a violent Tuesday night, when people from the township stormed the facility where suspected Ebola patients were being observed and cared for.
On Tuesday, August 19, unknown persons looted the holding center established to observe suspected Ebola cases. The attackers reportedly terrified the patients and looted the center, taking away beddings, mattresses, furniture, medical utensils, a generator, medicines that were being used on the patients and health workers’ personal effects.
Frightened by the incident, the patients fled the facility and found their way back into the general population.
Authorities said they feared this was a highly dangerous situation that could lead to the spread of the Ebola virus, given that the patients were suspected Ebola cases and that some of the looted items (such as the mattresses and beddings used by patients) may have been Ebola-infested.
That very night, the evening of Tuesday, August 19, the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, took the the airwaves and announced a nationwide curfew:
“The government, supported by citizen groups and partners, continue to work assiduously to combat the Ebola virus. There has been some success — the several persons who have been freed from the disease, the structure and systems that have been put in place, the human and financial resources that we have mobilized and a stabilization in a few the Response Communities. But we have been unable to control the spread due to continued denials, cultural burying practices, disregard for the advice of health workers and disrespect for the warnings by the Government.
“As a result and due to the large population concentration the disease has spread widely in Monrovia and environs.
It has thus become necessary to impose additional sanctions to curb the spread overall and particularly in those areas of intensity.
“Now therefore, the following measures are to be urgently enforced:
“The communities of West Point in Monrovia and Dolo Town in Margibi are quarantined under full security watch. This means that there will be no movements in and out of those areas..,” the President announced.
It is not clear whether or not the leaders and residents of West Point had been made aware; but on Wednesday, August 20, residents awoke to find themselves barricaded by joint security personnel.
In the total chaos that ensued, crowds of West Pointers went on a rampage, throwing stones at the police and officers and soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) surrounding the community.
Rumors emerged that some residents were determined to march on the Foreign Ministry, which currently houses the Office of the President of Liberia, and demand she step down.
The rioting stopped and the crowds dispersed only after soldiers started firing live shots. In the end, a young teenager, Shaki Kamara, lost his life after he bled to death. Two other young men were severely injured, one of whom sustained a bullet wound to his stomach.
Speaking to reporters, residents said they had not been informed that an Ebola holding center was being set up in their township. “They know the disease is deadly then they brought the center here? For what?” an elderly woman asked newsmen.
Her question indicated that West Pointers had not been educated as to the purpose of the holding center and how it would affect their community.
West Pointers particularly expressed their anger and frustration that the quarantine had abruptly been imposed upon their population of 75,000 with no supply of food, water or medicines. Immediately after the quarantine went into effect, the price of rice, the nation’s staple, skyrocketed, as did the price of a sack of water.
Later in the week, food supplies donated by the World Food Programme (WFP) were transported to West Point on trucks as thousands of residents lined up to receive supplies — one bag of rice to four residents. Some of the rice was later reported to be rotten.
By Thursday, August 28, check point commanders were allowing visitors to meet family members at the checkpoint to deliver needed items.
Then, just as abruptly as the quarantine had been imposed, it ended.
On Friday night at 7 p.m., State radio ELBC announced that as of 6 a.m. Saturday morning, August 30, the community of West Point would be released from the quarantine after only 10 days. Giving no explanation, the government-run station only reported that West Point had been released from quarantine upon the recommendation of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare to the National Security Agency (NSA).
Defense Minister Brownie Samukai had said the quarantine would last for 21 days, the stipulated timeframe for suspected Ebola patients at all medical centers. Health workers would be going around the community conducting testing and contact tracing. For a population of 75,000, it is unlikely that such was completed within the last 10 days.
Early Saturday morning, August 30, the residents of West Point awoke to find no military personnel and no check points.
With celebration and rejoicing, they cried: “West Pointers are free of Ebola! We demand government’s apology after being confined for 10 days with fear of Ebola, but [with] no Ebola confirmed case in the community!”
West Pointers took to the streets of Waterside and the Freeport, celebrating their freedom: “We are demanding an apology from the government for locking us up! West Point is an Ebola red zone!” they shouted.
Mr. Matthew Koji, a resident of West Point, said: “We woke up early this morning, and to our utmost surprise, no officers around the various newly established check points used to quarantined the people of West Point. We tell God ‘thank you’ that the doors have been opened on us, that we can go and do our normal businesses after 10 days of being quarantined.
“The government only quarantined West Point because the holding center was looted and had the fear that people in West Point will have the Ebola virus; but no news about Ebola case in West Point, or deaths.”
After being quizzed if West Pointers have the Ebola virus, Mr. Koji said, “We were quarantined for 10 days and the government did not confirm any Ebola case or inform us of any Ebola suspect. We are totally free of the Ebola virus, because only the government and partners can tell us that we have the virus.”
A group of West Pointers dancing in the Waterside area maintained that they were confined and not quarantined, stating that no Ebola case was reported in the 10 days, or deaths, as speculated by the government.
They argued that it is important for the government to explain the reasons of quarantining the people of West Point.
“We are disappointed in our lawmaker, Solomon George. He failed the people of West Point; but thank God that we are released from this problem.”
According to community dwellers, Rep. Solomon George failed to speak for them after being quarantined by the government without any reason.
When the Observer asked an assistant minister at the Ministry of Information why the curfew had been lifted so abruptly, he replied, “Only the Minister proper can answer that”.
This publication has received reports, however, that the government of Liberia was prevailed upon by the international community and health experts to release West Point. In addition, it is possible that the government of Liberia realized how expensive it would be to feed 75,000 people, and that failure to do so could lead to more rioting.
Dolo Town, the other community under “full security watch”, remains under quarantine, officials said, until the Health Ministry recommends otherwise.