For about four (4) months now, the country has been in a shut-down as part of measures to combat and control the spread of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). The Government has spared little effort to convey a message of commitment and support to combatting the pandemic. Towards this end, President George Weah constituted a COVID-19 response task force, declared a state of emergency and ordered a lockdown which is to end on June 21, 2020.
But from the get-go, it appeared that GoL had started off on the wrong footing with the appointment of a response task force largely composed of non-health professionals to lead the fight against the COVID-19.
The Monrovia City Corporation was one of such institutions associated with the task force and it immediately set to work deploying hundreds of untrained youths around the city to do tracing. The knowledge and experience gained from the fight against the 2014 Ebola outbreak on how to contain and handle an infectious disease outbreak did not even factor in initial response efforts.
Hundreds of individuals who were trained to conduct tracing during the Ebola outbreak were virtually ignored. The Infectious Disease Control infrastructure, including trained Infectious disease control specialists, which the government in collaboration with its partners had begun erecting in 2014, appeared to have given way to the Task Force comprised largely of non-health personnel and whose impact is yet to be seen or felt.
But after much public outcry, a handful of health professionals, mainly medical doctors were appointed to serve on the task force. Meanwhile, health workers here have found themselves at the frontline of the battle against the COVID-19 but lack the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to protect themselves against exposure to the disease. Such was the experience during the initial phase of the 2014 Ebola outbreak which led to several health professionals including doctors becoming infected and dying as a result.
In the fight against this current COVID-19 pandemic, it is officially reported that at least 13.7 percent of all confirmed COVID-19 cases are health workers. This simply means that health workers are most at risk of infection due to their exposure to infected individuals at the various health centers around the country. As the experience from Ebola shows health care workers not assigned at treatment centers were most at risk of contracting the disease.
The situation during this COVID-19 outbreak appears to be no different given current statistics showing that 13.7 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases are health workers. Unlike now, however, during the Ebola outbreak, health professionals were placed in charge of the response effort. Moreover, they were provided the requisite support such as the provision of PPEs and financial incentives (hazard pay) for their exposure to hazardous working conditions.
This time around, incentives are being provided only to those health workers assigned at the 14 Military Hospital which is nothing much of a treatment center according to those who have successfully recovered from the disease there and who did so largely through their own efforts. This is not only patently wrong but is very troubling as well. As it appears, the anti-COVID-19 fight is all about money and what our officials can eat or steal from funds appropriated to the COVID-19 fight.
Sadly, the Ministry of Health which, in theory, is supposed to be leading the fight has been sidelined in favor of a Task Force and that Task Force has apparently not seen it fit to consider the inclusion of all health workers in the hazardous duty payment scheme just as it was done during Ebola. But just why Health Ministry officials would maintain sealed lips on this matter is puzzling even, in face of the US$10 million slice from its meagre budget.
But health professionals including doctors, nurses, ancillary staff as well as the public are aware that the international donor community has provided funding support for the fight against the COVID-19 and public suspicion is high that the money is being misapplied and being channeled into the pockets of a few. The much proclaimed and promised food relief distribution scheme has still not got off to a start primarily due to accountability concerns.
And now with health workers threatening to stop work if GoL does not respond positively to their concerns the war against COVID-19 in Liberia may not be won. For the benefit of the public, especially those who feel that the demand of health workers is unjustified, let them be reminded that the U.S. Centerd for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that during past Ebola (infectious disease) outbreaks, up to 25 percent of recorded cases have been among health workers.
Today, the situation might be different but not much different. Health workers report that, like during Ebola, there is inconsistent recognition/triage of COVID-19 patients. Overcrowding in clinics/hospitals still remains a problem. Coupled with this are the lack of adequate training in the use of PPEs as well as inadequate supply of PPEs and as current experience suggests, there is limited supervision and poor adherence to infection control protocols.
Thus, it is by no means surprising that health workers would account for 13.7 percent of all confirmed COVID-19 cases. And lest we forget, some of the immediate consequences of COVID-19 among Liberian health care workers have been the closure of health facilities as was the case during the Ebola outbreak, coupled with grief for lost relations and fear of dying from exposure to the disease.
The GoL, particularly President Weah, should listen to the concerns of the Liberia Medical and Dental Association (LMDA). Retiring medical doctors at age 65 makes no sense for a country extremely short of health workers. It is not an option. The prospect of doctors and health workers staying away from work because some officials somewhere do not consider the worth of their sacrifice is reprehensible and should be avoided at all costs. It should never happen. NOT UNDER YOUR WATCH MR. PRESIDENT!