By Crispin J. Tulay
Even before the COVID-19 virus pandemic hit, the people living in Liberia’s West Point community were used to dealing with a major public health crisis. West Point is a sprawling slum fishing community situated in the heart of the capital Monrovia on the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean.
The settlement, which has more than 75,000 residents, provides an interesting insight into the depth and scale of the socio-economic knock-on effect of the COVID-19 outbreak in Liberia. Due to various existential risk factors, West Point residents constitute the most vulnerable segment of the urban population. This is because of the dearth of basic social amenities, something attributable in large part to political neglect in promoting development in this area where livelihoods are being threatened and impacted by sea erosion.
Successive governments have been grappling with the issue of relocating the community, but it has been an uphill task, the ever-increasing environmental risk notwithstanding.
Liberia, like many countries in Africa felt the impact of the COVID-19 virus’s manifold socio-economic meltdown. West Point has an untold story to recount in reflecting on the implications and impact for the broader artisanal fishing sector in Liberia.
West Point immediately felt the impact of the arrival of the COVID-19 virus. Following the first confirmed COVID-19 case, in March 2020, Liberia’s government ordered the closure of all public and private beaches. Despite the closure of beaches, the fishing community was allowed to continue to ply its trade within the context of COVID 19 safety measures. However, as a result of the imposition of these preventative measures, artisanal fishing nose-dived, impacting livelihoods, as was the case in other small business and informal sector jobs.
There is no national information about the pandemic impact on the economy or small scale industry sectors, however, a World Bank report titled “Liberia Economic Update” pointed out that the “COVID-19 pandemic continues to exact a toll on the global economy, and Liberia is facing its dire human and economic impact, with real GDP projected to contract by 2.6 percent.”
The report recommends four critical areas that can help Liberia lay the foundation for recovery in the immediate and short-term, namely, scaling up social protection programs, ensuring continued access to education, promoting the continuation of essential trade and market activities, and supporting financial-sector development to bolster the response to COVID-19.
For the residents of West Point, fishing is not just a livelihood. It is a way of life. Fishing is done using dugout canoes and engine-powered small boats. During the COVID-19 pandemic the community witnessed a decline in fishing- related income generating activities.
With the receding COVID-19 caseload in Liberia, thanks to the heightened vaccination rate in the country, it was a good time to visit West Point and talk to residents and hear their testimonies about how COVID-19 has affected them.
Fisherman Dominic Morris said the full fishing workflow was affected by the measures taken to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Every aspect, he noted, from catching fish, fish products, transporting them ashore for processing, and finally, sale to the consumer, was disrupted by the imposed public health interdictions that curtailed movement and clustering of people who before came in large numbers to West Point to buy fish.
West Point Commissioner William C. Wea has been recounting the pandemic experience in terms of adherence to public health measures similar to what happened during the Ebola crisis. He is convinced the rigid stance, that is the emergency public health measures employed saved lives and account for the low death rates — not more than twenty persons.
During the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2015, West Point became an epicenter of violence involving military units sent to enforce the mandatory lockdown that was aimed at stemming spread of the virus, bringing business to a halt. At one point, the situation became so grave, food prices skyrocketed and hundreds of people had to line up for government and non-governmental organizations food aid handouts. One morning, the army was faced with an angry mob fed up with the lockdown measures. The soldiers responded with the discharge of live ammunition, leaving a 16-year-old boy badly wounded. The boy later died of his wounds.
Now faced with the COVID-19 crisis, no one wanted to see a repeat of what happened in West Point during the Ebola crisis.
Upon confirmation of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, Liberia’s Minister of Health, Dr. Wilhelmina Jallah declared a national health emergency and announced strict measures aimed at containing spread of the virus. Liberia’s Public Health Law gives the minister the authority to declare as “an infected area” and take necessary measures, in any part of the country, to prevent the spread of “any formidable epidemic, endemic or communicable disease.”
Dr. Jallah’s declaration named two of the country’s 15 counties as “infected areas.” These were Montserrado County (where Monrovia, the capital is located and includes the West Point community) and Margibi County, imposing a strict 21-day lockdown in those two areas. In addition to imposing mandatory preventive sanitation measures such as hand washing and masking, the measure called for closure of all schools, bars, night clubs, casinos, cinemas and entertainment venues, public and private beaches and places of worship. Gatherings of more than 10 persons in public and private spaces were also prohibited. Movement of people in and out of these two counties was also ‘discouraged.’
These stringent measures could have indeed triggered memories of what happened in West Point during the Ebola lockdown, especially the restrictions on movement. And perhaps it did but this time, there was a positive reaction. It seems that the residents were loathe to see a repeat of what happened during Ebola and as such, they were more easily amenable adhering to the COVID-19 restrictions. They also could also have remembered the toll the Ebola took in lives in the country, including in their community.
But, while things were more peaceful this time around, the community, just as it did during the Ebola crisis, was hard hit economically.
Fisherman Prince Moore had this to say: “Social distancing was the main reason why our businesses suffered during COVID-19, as our customers were not coming here to the beach to buy our catch and even when we managed to catch some fish, we ate it…”
According to Moore, before the COVID-19 pandemic, they went fishing with between six to eight persons in a canoe but then because of COVID they were restricted to only three persons per canoe. The measure was an extension of the protocols instituted by the Ministry of Health and enforced by local authorities at West Point.
Just as in other parts of the country, many in the tight-knit fishing community were at first afraid to get vaccinated.
“When the vaccine was brought into the country,” Moore said, “Many of us were still afraid to take the jab because of the associated conspiracy theories with the vaccine. It took some time before some people got convinced that there are no side effects to be afraid of.”
Convincing people in the community to ‘take the jab’ took time and mobilization of various elements of the community. From the point of view of West Point medical practitioner Dr. Diabe Daboe, “Robust community house-to-house awareness helped to dispel the denial syndrome and people started observing the protocols in hand washing and social distancing,” he said, adding that in stemming the spread of the virus, this ensured that the death toll from COVID-19 was very low when compared to the Ebola numbers.
Dr. Diabe noted that residents of the township are sporadically showing up at the West Point Township Medical Health Center to be vaccinated. He believes this is because there are mobile clinics and other private health centers providing free vaccines within the township. However, he notes, there still remains vaccine hesitancy among some segments of the population.
However, current data shows that Liberia was successful in stemming spread of the COVID-19 virus and as a result the infection numbers and death numbers were far from what it experienced during the Ebola pandemic. Ebola ravaged the Mano River Union (MRU) basin, a region which is comprised of the countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Ebola toll numbers were staggering –4,810 deaths out of 10, 678 confirmed cases, according to Liberia’s Ministry of Health.
According to data collected by the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL) and according the latest World Health Organization (WHO) figures, as of February 2023 Liberia had 8,090 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 294 deaths. These numbers are a fraction of the overall death rate in western countries such as Italy, Britain, the US and France. In the West Africa region, Liberia and neighbor Sierra Leone (which WHO notes has had to date 7,762 cases and 125 deaths) fared better than regional neighbors. NPHIL is an autonomous public institution in Liberia responsible for preventing and controlling public health threats. These numbers, it is noted are the result of the combination of the emergency measured and effective behavior change messaging.
When it comes to human life, these numbers are something to celebrate. But for people in the West Point community who depend on fishing activities for their livelihoods, they are still trying to recover the income lost and they recall how hard things became.
Women are actually at the forefront of the fish-selling business after their husbands haul the catch ashore. They have also been speaking about the scarcity and high cost of basic goods and foodstuffs to manage households.
Koffadee Sieh, a fish seller, recalled how they did not have enough fish to sell to provide for their homes. “The fish that we had was not even enough to feed our families let alone to sell,” she lamented.
Now, the tide is seemingly changing for the better at West Point. The community of West Point is getting back on its feet and those who rely on fishing for their income, are working to make up the loss and the slump of COVID-19.
Smoke billows from the zinc kitchen shacks and the smell of smoke fish on dryers pervade the air. Men are seen disentangling the fishing nets. The West Point fishing activity is clearly witnessing resurgence as the COVID 19 curve flattens.
For Kebeh Sumo, 48, a young single parent wielding a knife to remove scales from a pile of fish, “We are happy that our children can return to school, and we are working very hard to make money to pay the fees,” she said.