This question is being asked repeatedly whether or not our elected representatives and senators are indeed servants or overlords of the people. And this question comes in the wake of confirmed reports that members of the national legislature have each received US$6,500 for “operations” while salaries of civil servants have gone unpaid for at least three months.
In its attempt to deal with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the government of Liberia declared a State of Emergency and imposed a lockdown initially on the affected counties which included Montserrado and Margibi but has now been extended to include the rest of the country. Also extended is the period of the emergency by an additional 14-days.
Throughout the period of this pandemic, just like the 2014 Ebola outbreak during which several health workers including doctors lost their lives, health workers, especially those in the public sector, have once again found themselves at the frontline of the battle against the COVID-19.
And already they have begun to suffer casualties. At least one health worker so far is reported to be on the list of fatalities which currently stands at 8 deaths. Moreover, this pandemic has hit Liberia at a time when the national health system is still struggling to recover from the effects of the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
It was during that time the severe weaknesses of the national health system was exposed. However then, unlike now, the task of combatting the outbreak was placed squarely on the shoulders of health workers and health professionals. And this made all the difference.
Moreover, health workers, most of who were working without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were provided with adequate incentives for being at the forefront of the battle against such a deadly disease.
But unlike this outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, there was no imposition of a lockdown on the country. Although schools were ordered shut, businesses including markets however remained open throughout the period.
The long and short of this is that economic hardships were not as biting as they are now during this COVID-19. Additionally, the response of the current government to the pandemic is measurably different from that of its predecessor in its response to the Ebola outbreak.
And this is where the question of leadership comes in. Leadership calls for sacrifice; it is unselfish and in times of grave crisis. A true leader, without prompting, will be the first to lay down his life for his people. In traditional societies, such are the qualities expected of a leader. In moments such as these, with the threat of this pandemic hovering over the nation, it is expected that our leaders would be the ones, the first actually, to make sacrifices on behalf of the nation. But this appears not to be the case.
This is why the public is seething with rage following revelations that each legislator has received an amount of US$6,500 for what some maintain is for operations while Senator Prince Johnson has admitted that the money was intended as inducement for the recall of legislators from recess in order to sign on to a resolution declaring a State of Emergency, (SoE).
Whatever the case, the decision to pay legislators such a staggering amount rather than paying health workers or paying for medical equipment and supplies including ventilators, nose and face masks, surgical gloves, etc, is the main issue riling the public and fueling resentment.
This newspaper holds the view that such an amount (in total US$669,500) nearly three-quarters of a million dollars, could go a long way towards meeting urgent health and related priorities including testing kits sorely needed at this time. Moreover, the nonpayment of salary arrears to civil servants, including employees in the public health sector, the delay in actualizing promises to provide food relief assistance to communities, as well as the provision of financial assistance to market women and other small business people to help mitigate losses sustained by the lockdown imposed initially on Montserrado, Margibi Counties and now to the rest of the country, are very plausible reasons for growing public discontent.
And all at once, legislators have now become objects of public scorn for what is being described by callers on various radio talk-shows as heartlessness and lack of concern for the interests of the people. There is a commonly held view in the public that legislators are overpaid and that they earn very high salaries for reporting to work twice a week and for only six (6) months a year while the rest of the time is considered recess period.
During the recess, they are supposed to be making farms as well as consulting their constituencies. But the evidence shows otherwise. Many of our legislators take long breaks to the US preferring to spend their time with families and friends, although the usual excuse is that they spend their time consulting with diaspora Liberians.
Additionally, the public contends that legislators should have, at their own volition, written the President requesting a recall to discuss measures to handle the pandemic which has become a global and national health emergency, without demanding a dime in return, considering the abnormality of the situation both locally and globally. After all, they are among the highest paid individuals in government, paid to look after the interests of the people, placing those interests above their personal interests.
To the contrary, this appears not to be the case as has been amply demonstrated in this case of “operational funds” windfall payout to Legislators. Just what constitutes “operational funds” and how the use of such funds is to be accounted for remain unclear. As it looks, the funds may be used at the personal discretion of each legislator. But this casts a negative impression of members of the Legislature as individuals out to secure their personal interests even where such may come into conflict with broader community interests.
The question therefore is, are our Legislators humble servants of the people or are they greedy Overlords of the people.