To Live and Die with Ebola in Liberia

The idea that this has been a crisis only of the country’s health care systems is wrong. This has also been a crisis of governance.

Monrovia, Liberia in September 2014. Photo by Morgana Wingard, for UNDP, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Shaki Kamara was a 15-year-old Liberian boy who lived in Monrovia’s notorious and misunderstood neighborhood of West Point. He was one of the casualties of the awful Ebola epidemic that’s gripping Liberia, but he didn’t die of the virus. Shaki was shot by Liberian security forces in an altercation with residents of the neighborhood after they woke up to find that they’d been quarantined overnight by the government. After initially making the absurd claim that his injuries were caused by barbed wire, the government admitted that soldiers fired live rounds at scared members of the West Point community and ordered an inquiry into who gave the order to shoot.

In early September, West Point’s residents were subjected to a draconian and perplexing quarantine that was imposed after some members of its community raided an isolation facility and broke out suspected Ebola patients. According to reports, the raid was a result of anger in West Point over the presence of outsiders at the facility, and was accompanied by chants of “There is no Ebola!” For people who don’t have an intimate knowledge of Liberia, the incident must have seemed like the work of fools. For those who know the country well, it was a sad reflection of a dynamic of neglect that exists across Liberia.

On the streets of Monrovia and in the country’s small towns, Liberian society is seen as deeply exclusionary and built to service the needs of money rather than those of the poor. In the past few years, the Liberian government has gone on a string of house demolitions on behalf of moneyed elites, handed out huge chunks of communal land to foreign investors, banned motorcycle taxis that the poor use to go to and from work, and operated a police force that’s been sanctioned by rights groups for a deeply entrenched culture of corruption. In the country’s dysfunctional legislature, labor advocates have been unable to pass a “Decent Work Bill” because politicians fear that a minimum wage will cut into the profits of their private plantations.

Meanwhile, people from places like West Point sit in the hot sun for hours, hawking goods and dodging police raids while government bureaucrats and aid employees zip by in air conditioned trucks that cost more then they will see in a lifetime. They are looked down on by the country’s upper classes and barely engaged by a development sector that concerns itself with capacity building workshops and efforts to increase GDP and boost investment.

The development community and the Liberian government will have some self-reflecting to do in the wake of the outbreak. The idea that this has been a crisis only of the country’s health care systems is wrong. This has also been a crisis of governance. Liberians have refused to believe that Ebola is real because they see their government as relentlessly corrupt and unconcerned with the survival and health of the poor. This isn’t a shock to aid agencies; in fact, it’s an open secret that they discuss amongst themselves.

Once the outbreak is over, key questions will need to be asked and openly discussed. Namely, has the approach of relative silence in the face of anti-poor policies and entrenched corruption produced the results that Liberians deserve? How can bureaucracies that hop from one high-walled compound to the next hope to understand what’s bubbling underneath the surface outside the barbed wire? Discovering the right answers to these questions is vital. As we are seeing, getting it wrong can have tragic consequences.

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