Pre-Existing Social, Economic Conditions and Large Informal Population, Increases Liberia’s Vulnerability to COVID-19 Economic Shock

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By Rev. Kenety S. Gee, MDiv, MSNM, MSGH

In the recent two decades, Liberia has been recovering from a 14-year Civil War, then in 2014 Ebola struck, devastating the population and leading to many economic setbacks of gains from the Civil War recovery. The fight against Ebola provided some opportunity to the Country’s fragile health care system in facing the current COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the Ebola experience of 2014, Liberia rapidly reactivated the capacities of health authorities to put monitoring systems in place as COVID-19 approached. While Liberia’s healthcare system stands in need of much help, the Ebola experience push health authorities and international aid agencies to develop infrastructure and skills for laboratory testing, exchange of capacities with international partners, technical agencies and the private sector. Together with the private sector, health authorities in the country were quick in creating awareness among the population.

However, with the arrival of the pandemic in Liberia on March 16, officials were obliged to put safety measures, such as reduced crowding and movement, social distancing, face mask and shield in public places and closing of non-essential businesses, in place, like the rest of the world. In Liberia, like most of sub-Sahara Africa, this meant social exposure of the vulnerable population especially those in the informal sector. Liberia’s informal sector makes up about 85% of the workforce. This large segment of the population is the most vulnerable due to undesirable working, health and safety conditions. Further, the informal workforce has no safety nets such as savings to get through any number of days without working (or hustle) every day. Due to the nature of the informal work environment, health protocols such as social distancing, mask wearing and even the need for constant hand washing and sanitization pose serious challenge. Besides, the need to work every day, social distancing and self-isolation in vulnerable communities is near impossible due to crowded living arrangements.

Specifically, the lockdown measures put in place since April of this year, presented economic shock to the segment of the population living “hand to mouth.” Already, before COVID-19, unemployment rate in Liberia was high, consistent with the International Labor Organization (ILO, 2017 (33) which forecast in 2017 that unemployment rate in developing countries like Liberia will rise.

Just as people with pre-existing underlying health condition are more susceptible to COVID-19, developing countries like Liberia with pre-existing social and economic conditions, are more vulnerable to the economic downturn imposed by the virus. According to the World Bank, 2020 Global Economic Outlook, the COVID-19 crisis could push about 23 million Sub-Sahara Africans into extreme poverty in 2020. Further, the World Bank states that, “Should COVID-19 outbreak persist, should restrictions on movement be extended or reintroduced, or should restrictions to economic activity be prolonged, the recession could be deeper.”

It has been shown consistently, that poverty is a health hazard. Poverty can be a major cause of poor health and a barrier to accessing health. The poor generally do not seek health care until there is an emergency. They generally cannot afford the things related to good health such as quality nutrition, or even participate in physical activity on regular basis. On the other hand, ill health is a major cause of poverty. Together, the consequences of poverty and ill health, put nations such as Liberia in precarious position, both socially and economically.

To lessen the impact on the Liberian population, in the short, mid and long term, decision makers should focus on strengthening the health care system, put in place measure to reignite growth, increase transparency, integrity and trust in public institutions.

The Author: 

Rev.  Kenety S. Gee is Associate Pastor at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Monrovia, Liberia. He is Executive Director at Liberia Career Pathways and consultant with Northern Illinois University, helping to design policy and practice around shaping complex education and workforce policies and programs. Together with his colleagues he proactively designs, structures, impacts, and implements policy and practice in education and workforce development. Part of his role with Northern Illinois University is focused on the effective use of data to strengthen healthcare systems, and build career pathways and workforce systems that prepare more young people for productive careers and lives in a global economy.  Rev. Gee served Chatham Fields Lutheran Church in Chicago, as Senior Pastor for about 14 years..   Gee was the founding President/CEO of Chicago Global Health Alliance and served as Executive Director for the Chicago Diabetes Project at the University of Illinois at Chicago- School of Medicine, Division of Cell Transplantation. In his previous role as President/CEO of Chicago Global Health Alliance, Gee lead the effort to develop a global team of doctors, surgeons, nurses, and clinical psychologists to make lasting social impact in underserved communities in Chicago and the developing world.

Rev. Gee holds a Master of Divinity degree from Concordia Seminary– St. Louis, MO., a Master of Science degree in Nonprofit Management from the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago, and a Master of Science degree in Global Health from Northwestern University’s Feingberg School of Medicine’s Professional Studies Program in Chicago. He has also done doctoral degree work at the University of Chicago from 2008 to 2010. An avid runner, Kenety has run ten marathons, two in New York and seven in Chicago and one at Notre Dame, Indiana . In July 2017, while on a global health rotation in Arusha, Tanzania, he took the chance to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.  A native of Liberia, Gee speaks four languages including fluent conversational French.

Professional Associations: Associations of Fund Raising Professionals (AFP) Chicago Chapter; Healthcare Federation of Liberia (Board Member)

References: 

  1. ILO (2017), World Social Protection Report 2017-2019, International Labour Office, Geneva
  2. OECD (2020), Developing countries and development co-operation: What is at stake?
  3. World Bank (2020), The impact of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: Why SubSaharan Africa might be the region hardest
  4. World Bank (August 2014) Poverty and Health

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