By Gabriel I. H. Williams
A Ghanaian pastor in the Maryland, USA area, whose predominantly African congregation that includes Liberians, recently asked me: “What’s happening in the Liberian society? There has been frequent death news from Liberians who are members of this church as compared to members from other African countries.”
The pastor raised the question when I informed him about the loss of one of my family members in Liberia. From church announcements and interactions with other fellow Liberian members of the congregation, death news about loved ones, friends, or acquaintances have become too frequent. Within the larger Liberian society, the frequency of death is becoming a new normal.
Liberians are facing a medical crisis. A mass of the population does not have access to quality health care. As a result, a growing number of people are sick and are dying because conditions at the medical facilities have gone from bad to worse. Meanwhile, the well-connected in government and others with the financial means usually travel to Ghana, South Africa, India, US, among others, for advanced medical treatment.
Those who have perished in Liberia were mostly in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. They were in the prime of their lives and were the bread winners of their families. Some of them were playing important leadership roles in the Liberian society.
Recent examples are the shocking deaths of two rising stars in Liberian politics, who held leadership positions in the present National Legislature. They are Representatives J. Nagbe Sloh, a ranking and vocal member of the opposition bloc, and Representative Munah Pelham Youngblood, a strong pillar of the ruling party, who was known to be a confidant of President George Weah.
According to media reports, Rep. Sloh, 55, died at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center (JFK) in Monrovia on June 30, 2020, following a brief illness. A career journalist who was outspoken, assertive or even regarded to be aggressive by some, Rep. Sloh’s sudden death at JFK is one of the latest among an ever growing number of people dying at Liberian medical facilities following what is attributed to “a brief illness.” Sick people who are rushed to JFK and other hospitals for emergency care often die because of the very poor service.
Equally disturbing is the despicable manner in which patients are treated at those medical facilities, as reflected by the photos of Nagbe Sloh that circulated on social media, which were taken at JFK. Photos of the deceased lying on a hospital bed that looks like a cot, with his sickened body exposed, are simply disgusting. This is a blatant and an unacceptable breach of the patient’s confidentiality, and it is a reason why many sick people are scared to seek treatment at JFK, which is called a “death trap.”
One week following Rep. Sloh’s death, the National Legislature suffered another loss with the passing of the enterprising Rep. Munah Pelham Youngblood. The 36 year-old former beauty queen and model, died on July 8, 2020 in Accra, Ghana, where she had gone for advanced medical care. According to media reports, Ms. Youngblood has been known to be ill for a few years now, during which she travelled to the United States and India for quality medical treatment. Her death brings to five members of the National Legislature, two senators and three representatives, who have died since 2019.
It is common knowledge in Liberia, backed by medical reports, that many people are dying from preventable, curable and controllable diseases like malaria, typhoid, diarrhea, hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes.
A World Health Organization (WHO) study reported by the BBC in 2016 states that Africa has the highest rate of high blood pressure in the world, affecting about 46 percent of adults, while a 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis of individual studies of hypertension in Africa published in the scientific journal “PLoS One” puts the overall pooled prevalence at 57.0%. The WHO study found that high blood pressure was often detected too late and was a silent killer. Another study published in the Journal of American Heart Association states that hypertension, which develops earlier in life among black people, increases one’s risk of heart disease and stroke. The problem of stroke has become widespread in Liberia.
Since the end of the14-year destructive civil war, Liberia’s health care system has been unable to adequately serve the war-affected population, which is also dealing with serious mental health challenges.
During President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s tenure, the government prepared a national health policy, which was formulated as a result of extensive research and consultations, aimed at providing accessible and affordable quality health care to people throughout the length and breadth of the country.
Even though efforts were made to rebuild the broken health system, it was not taken as a priority, as was similarly the case with the education system. Worst still, since the Weah government took power, gains that were made in health and other post-war reconstruction, as well as in the areas of good governance, are being eroded. Accordingly, many resources and opportunities to transform Liberia’s health system, among others, are being lost.
For example, Liberia lost millions of dollars’ worth of state-of-the-art medical equipment and other supplies in 2011 when the Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) in Washington, D.C., USA was combined with the National Naval Medical Center to form the tri-service Walter Reed National Medical Center. Following the merger, the Washington, DC medical center was shut down and its operations relocated to the newly constructed ultramodern center in Bethesda, MD.
In the wake of the relocation, most of the medical equipment in the old medical center were left behind as there was no use for them in the new facilities. Thanks to the efforts of some friends of Liberia, the US military gave Liberia the first priority to get most of the equipment free of charge, which would have been a major boost to the rebuilding of the country’s health infrastructure.
The donation earmarked for Liberia included breast cancer, prostate cancer, and neurological suites; closed-circuit operating theaters; operating room equipment; hospital laboratory equipment; and office furniture. About five hospitals, primarily the JFK Medical Center, as well as three universities, including the University of Liberia, were targeted to benefit from the excess medical equipment and training programs that were earmarked to be executed under the project.
Liberia was only required to provide $25,000 for a private firm with the expertise to package and transport the medical equipment and supplies from the old WRMAC to a warehouse pending shipment to Liberia. Under the arrangement, the US military was to ship the donation to Liberia, where experts would go to reinstall the equipment.
Unfortunately, as have often been the case with the Liberian situation, the matter was not prioritized for the government to make the funds available. Weeks passed but the there was no money. Accordingly, the medical equipment intended for Liberia were given to Ghana, which was originally intended to receive a balance of whatever was left after Liberia had taken. The then Ghanaian Ambassador to the US expressed delight that his country was given such a very important donation, promptly made the funds available to have the equipment cleared out of the old medical center. The operating suites and the other advanced medical equipment were given mostly to the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, where many Liberians with the financial means travel for quality health treatment.
Details regarding this major opportunity lost are contained in my recently-published book, Corruption is Destroying Africa: The Case of Liberia, which is available online. The book has three chapters on the Ebola Virus Disease epidemic in West Africa, as well as recommendations to transform the health care system, and also for effective environmental management and disaster preparedness.
The level of disorganization and confusion that has characterized the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic sadly exemplifies that Liberia has not learned lessons from the Ebola epidemic. Leaving out those who are trained with the medical expertise and recruiting people from the streets with no training to conduct the COVID-19 operation is a major government blunder. The integrity of the process has been undermined by the errors and conflicting test results that have been reported. It is also a government mistake for failing to utilize the services of the few internationally recognized Liberians with the medical and scientific expertise like Dr. Dougbeh Chris Nyan, in the fight to contain the pandemic. Instead of having people like Dr. Nyan on board in the implementation of our national response, the government has reportedly been scheming to discredit him and destroy his reputation. Liberia’s leaders must try to be open minded and allow for competence to prevail over the mediocrity and lack of accountability that has too often characterized the way things are done in the country.