Liberia, like many of its peers in sub-Saharan Africa may have been spared the worse of the covid-19 pandemic that has ravaged developed western nations in the last year. But as the recent trends in global infections, and infections on the African continent show, no country can brag about pulling it off on the pandemic unless all countries are fully out of its grip.
Sometime in July 2020, Liberia loosened its covid-19 emergency measures and authorized the Minister of Health to use the Public Health Law to contain the outbreak. The reason? The crisis did not pose a threat to the nation to have warranted a State of Emergency as was previously declared in April 2020. The Legislature concurred then, and measures were relaxed. The Airport was reopened, flights resumed, and life was seemingly on the return to normal since then.
When I arrived in the country in May 2021, I saw no semblance of a covid-19 sensitive country. Everything was moving smoothly, relaxed masking requirement and some of the handwashing stations at public buildings and offices did not have water. Indoor masking requirements were relaxed in most of the areas I visited.
What was stunning to me was how the covid-19 taskforce enforced the protocols to contain covid-19 at the Roberts International Airport (RIA). Almost anyone who has travel to Liberia recently will be informed by airlines that there is a “testing upon arrival” regime in Liberia. There is a downloadable mobile app on which each traveller has to register their details and pay the testing fees or commit to pay $50USD upon arrival.
I had been out of the country for a while and was returning in May. From Washington DC, I had to comply with the testing regulations, by registering my details via the mobile app and committing to pay $50USD upon arrival. On arriving at the airport, the charge per test increased by 50%, to $75USD. Why? I do not know till now.
Even though I had been fully vaccinated before traveling to Liberia and was hoping that the vaccination would provide me a ticket to enter the country without hassle, the covid-19 task force at the airport remarked firmly, “whether vaccinated or not, whether tested three days ago or not, once you enter Liberia, you must be tested at this airport for $75USD.” While the testing regime seemed fairly robust, it appeared other motives other than the containment of the covid-19 crisis were the force behind the commitment displayed by the Task Force to combat covid-19 at the Airport. Other Airport workers not directly related to the covid-19 Task Force remarked that the testing regime was “only for the money.” I may agree with them for several reasons.
First, the task force workers were not observing social distancing. They were all cramped up behind shared desks in a small space measured approximately 12 by 9 feet in the airport arrival terminal. It is in this terminal that all arriving passengers were received and processed to do their covid test. Second, travellers had to queue up in this small space without the requirement or possibility to distance. There were no distancing symbols. Some task force members were themselves not masking up. In essence, they were not observing the guidelines they claimed they were enforcing.
We were in this long queue, in the arrival terminal. It was extremely hot. It seemed as though the process at the Airport was a super-spreader occasion; a sort of ticking timebomb that would explode with time. Though the workers there professed they were the Government of Liberia’s Task Force to combat covid at this major port of entry, they were in essence only giving licenses to arriving travellers to bring covid-19 into the country, to their homes and families, and to wherever these new arrivals were hosted. Travellers were swapped and without their test results known, were permitted to freely enter the country without any covid prevention advisory or restriction.
Then it was my turn to be swapped. I went into this small cubicle where I met a guy in white robe who took my particulars and requested that he himself would swap me. Unlike the cotton buds that I had been used to while participating in the Tufts University Regular Covid Testing Regime as a student, the instrument used to collect my nasal swap at the Roberts International Airport was longer, slender, and slightly painful.
What was astonishing about the testing regime at the Roberts International Airport, was not the experience I have narrated so far, but the fact that results were not known before travellers were allowed into the Country and no one was required to quarantine till their test result was known.
Details were manually taken from each passenger on arrival; even though these same details were requested when we filled in the information on the mobile app, for those of us who did. When I entered my details on the mobile app, my impression was that the intent was to get rid of crowding at the airport and smoothen the screening process. But to the contrary, we crowded up together and became prone to contracting covid at the Airport in this congested and unventilated space.
Our swaps were taken; hopefully matched with our details. Till now, my test result, like many of the arriving travellers, is not known since we left the airport on the night of May 14. I was shocked that this has been the routine. A fellow Liberian who resides abroad and visited the country within four months of our arrival, said to us she did not receive her test result when she arrived in the country in January and when she left the country. She was returning for the second time and her test result was still not available.
On June 17, the Government of Liberia issued revised guidelines in the wake of what they said was a surge of covid-19 cases. And earlier in the week, it was reported in the local media that Liberia was reporting, the highest number of covid-19 cases in the West African sub-region. I personally hope, this would not be true. But if it is, the Government may have been creating their own ticking time-bomb that may now be exploding before our very eyes, by the setup they have at ports of entry, the Roberts International Airport in particular..
And the vaccine hesitancy is wide spreading in the population as could covid-19 as well. I have had friends come up to me saying, they believe it is the vaccine that is causing the reported surge in covid-19 cases and that if they got vaccinated, they would catch covid. I have had to disabuse my relatives about this myth, and hopefully our household will be vaccinated in the week ahead as the Government increases the number of vaccination centres, as it now struggles to get its act together to contain the new surge, the covid-19 myths, and the vaccine hesitancy.
Posted By Matthew Nyanplu
Posted Jun 25th, 2021