Occupational Health and Safety: Role of Liberian Colleges and Universities in Post-Ebola Liberia

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Post-conflict Liberia and Ebola-hit Liberia needs to use portion of the Ebola money and equipment to establish and sustain a high-quality occupational safety & health course and undergraduate degree in occupational health & safety at Liberian colleges and universities. This is particularly so, given the manner in which Ebola  spread exponentially and deeply within the communities and that the country lacks the requisite  manpower such as environmental engineers, sanitation technicians, emergency responders, occupational health & safety specialists, risk communicators, environmentalists, hygienists and activities such as higher institution-involved occupational health & safety courses and research to effectively and efficiently respond to the prevention and control of the insidious disease. For example, according to an analysis of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2014), the total cases of Ebola in Liberia at the moment are 4,249, which accounts for about 47% of the total of 8,993 cases within the world. Liberia also accounts for 2,458 of the total of 4,992 deaths within the world, which constitutes about 55% of the total deaths.

Although Ebola entered Nigeria from Liberia in mid July 2014, by September 5, 2014, that country was able to contain the virus within just 46 days, thus tallying only 8 deaths during that period. This must have been facilitated by that nation’s established educational system that trained professionals in our deficit areas. We can only conclude that the gut-wrenching scenes that we witnessed in our nation today are because of the lack of applied curriculum of relevance and short-term courses. Sadly, acronym name like personal protective equipment or PPE became a household name for the first time in our nation’s history during the Ebola crisis. This is a self-abandonment and we, as Liberians, need to recognize that. Nigeria was able to quickly control and eradicate Ebola because of its higher educational system that trained adequate occupational health & safety, sanitation engineers, emergency responders, and risk communicators who were spread out though the country.

However, unlike Nigeria, Liberia has a seriously inadequate public health infrastructure, scant health manpower, an insufficient number of specialized professionals, and a highly centralized higher education. According to the National Health and Social Welfare Plan (2007) Liberia only has 168 physicians, 273 physician assistants, 453 registered nurses, and 1,000 nurse aids and other health professionals to respond the health needs of  3.6 million citizens. The International Labor Organization (ILO) also says that, of Liberia’s 1.13 million labor force, of which 195,000 are paid employees, there is visible absence of occupational health & safety specialists and inspection of workplace to enforce regulatory compliance. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the levels of health education and risk perception in Liberia contribute to how Ebola is perceived, especially, when the lack of risk communication, misinformation and fear mongering became a lucrative business.

Putting all of these analyses aside, what can be done immediately in our own lifetime about the threat of any viral outbreak in Liberia? First and foremost, Liberia should stop abandoning herself and heed the words of Nelson Mandela that ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Thus, the proposal to begin teaching occupational and health class at all colleges and universities in Liberia to establish a BS in Occupational Safety & Health at least at three colleges or universities with the aim to teach and conduct research in environmental health-risk-communication, risk management, environmental health, occupational safety & health, public health, occupational toxicology, environmental assessment, infectious and re-emerging diseases, and public health.

It is truism that the tripartite—and universal—mission of colleges & universities is to teach, conduct research and render service. It is not normal that higher institution of learning in Liberia has not upturn curricula in some of these areas to create knowledge for our nation. It can be recalled that in his recent address to the American public about Ebola’s spread in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, President Barack Obama lamented about how higher education and health care system had been considered a luxury by development partners and, currently, these nations’ determination to build their higher educational system—under financial duress.

Factually, a strong undergraduate and graduate programs that enhances research capability is overdue because the central hub for research and innovation remains to be colleges & universities. Without strong programs, it is simply impossible to establish a viable research culture and innovative capabilities in the Liberia nation. As such and in order to be able to respond to Ebola and other infectious and re-emerging diseases, it is imperative that donors and Liberian government divert some of the Ebola money for capacity building, training and conducting research with students’ participation. This program will set our national affairs by training and conducting research at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Along with this intellectually rich breadth of topics, there is also an increasing expectation of students to weigh in on compelling questions in fields such as biology, in order for occupational safety & health, industrial hygiene, infectious diseases, environmental assessment, epidemiology, emergency management, fire safety, religion, and history to respond to our needs.

To foster national emergency response competitiveness, post-Ebola Liberia should constantly be concerned about its national competitiveness in light of emerging diseases and other national disasters. And these concerns can only be addressed through strong institutions—institutions with research and innovative capabilities. What does this mean? For example, our nation will be conducting exploitation in the near future. None of the Ebola control and prevention contracts have any proposed curriculum to research and train manpower in environmental health, spill management, occupational safety & health, emergency response, disaster management, fire safety engineering, and accident investigation, and other related areas of national needs. Nations without the appropriate curriculum of relevance, infrastructure and human resources cannot capitalize on knowledge that was never generated and harvested at their higher institutions, unless the situation is reversed.

The proposed curriculum identifies what Liberia needs to do in areas of our national competitiveness and capitalize on our assets—natural resources or otherwise. While it is important (and may even be at times inevitable) to engage development partners in matters of national interest, the nation however has to take the driver’s seat in setting its own educational needs and determining its own strategies in order to raise its national competitiveness.

Enormous amount of Ebola-related aid has been given to Liberia. Prior to the imposition of the state of emergency, the country spent US$1 million dollars to eradicate the disease; it then incurred 129 deaths. Throughout the current state of emergency, which has only lasted for about 100 days (July 31, 2014 to November 9, 2014), Liberia has received an estimated amount of US$300 million worth of cash donations and about US$100 million worth of in-kind (medical supplies) donations. The US government has earmarked several billions for Ebola research, education, training and economic development. Sadly, it will be business as usual: US entities and NGOs will come to Liberia with their people to do the work. They will then leave with the money and personnel and no capacity-building that would have empowered Liberia to produce its own needed brains.  This is not normal!

As Liberia strives to control, prevent, and kick Ebola of out Liberia on May 9, there is an urgent need for strengthening skills, developing newer competencies and broadening our knowledge in environmental health, spill management, occupational safety & health, emergency response, disaster management, fire safety engineering, and accident investigation, and other related areas of national needs in Liberia. To this son of the soil, this one of the best ways to Ebola and other outbreaks, you will never renter and enter the house of Liberia.

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