Ebola in Liberia: A Threat to Human Security and Peace

The following analysis of the Liberian response toward Ebola is based on my fieldwork in Monrovia at the onset of Ebola in late March and my continuous correspondence with friends and host family on the ground. While the neglect of the international community has played a huge role, I will solely focus on Liberia and argue that the initial approach of the Government of Liberia (GoL) and its citizens made the spread inevitable and created a seemingly unresolvable issue.

As the GoL provided sparse information, Liberia’s media began to publish rumors. News changed daily: one day Ebola was confirmed in Liberia,  the next day in Monrovia, and a day later the Minister of Information declared Ebola had not entered Liberia at all. When the GoL finally intervened in early April, most Liberians no longer knew what to believe or whom to trust.

The GoL’s delayed response revealed a lack of both resources and interest. While the weak infrastructure and a severe lack of finances, logistics, and equipment (e.g., Personal Protective Equipment, chlorine, etc.) hampered intervention opportunities, the media was already discussing a potential state of emergency in late March. Yet the Senate thought it more important to extend the National Election’s Commission’s budget by US $10.3 million to circumvent a constitutional breech that would inevitably have ousted the current government. When the GoL was later forced to ask the international community for financial assistance, this confirmed what many had suspected: Ebola was simply a fabrication by government officials to secure their personal financial wellbeing.

The Western media was soon flooded with news of Liberians violating the GoL’s orders, yet no one seemed to ask why Liberians did so. Centuries of government corruption and years of war have taught Liberians not to trust public authorities.  As they had never before experienced Ebola, Liberians responded by placing their trust in the family and religious institutions, praying for salvation and mistrusting the GoL’s recommendations.

All of the GoL’s measures, therefore, continue to create a vicious cycle of deeply entrenched mistrust and confusion as illustrated below.

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 "The Vicious Cycle of Ebola." Compiled by the author.

A Human Security Analysis of the Liberian Ebola outbreak demonstrates that health insecurity can lead to a severe degree of human insecurity and state failure.

Ebola disintegrated a weak health care system which has long been financially and physically inaccessible for people, often forcing many to seek traditional medical means. The medical resource shortage, exemplified by the high number of infected health workers, inspired some nurses to strike. Consequently, deserted clinics have sparked an increase of minor illnesses—e.g., malaria—which are left untreated at a time of usual prevalence (i.e., the rainy season). Being the country with the highest health expenditure in relation to GDP worldwide is clearly insufficient.

As Liberians’ personal insecurity increases with the spread of Ebola, people have responded with distrust, fear, denial, anger, or confusion. Some were initially unwilling to bring their sick relatives to Ebola care facilities as they either feared to never see them again due to prohibited funeral rites or that their condition might worsen there as a result of starvation. While this attitude is slowly changing, Ebola patients are frequently refused entry due to overcrowding as the result of an ill-equipped health sector. Such instability, chaos, and confusion only invoke memories of the past.

Liberia has become so politically insecure that it equals a failed state. Some of the GoL’s doubtful methods include: an ineffective state of emergency; the dumping of bodies into community wetlands, which left people afraid about water contamination; the shooting of a sixteen-year-old; the closing of a newspaper over allegations of false information spread about a Government change (a violation of press freedom); unknown financial aid allocations; and uncertainty about how, if, and to whom ZMapp has been distributed. Unsurprisingly, civil unrest is increasing and some have demanded the ousting of the GoL.

The failure of the GoL not only reaffirmed distrust but also created a power vacuum in which communities are attempting to ensure security that the state fails to provide. Such actions include boy scouts’ awareness campaigns, self-quarantining, or vigilante groups that expel or quarantine infected people. This has, however, not been solely positive. Expulsions have led to ostracism, and armed robbers are increasingly using this chaos for their own benefit, thereby constituting an ever-increasing crime rate. With the worst likely still to come, the collapse of Liberia’s already suffering economy exacerbates this crisis. If the Finance Minister truly intends to substitute such budget deficits with educational funding cuts, Ebola will have lasting effects. The halting of foreign industries, investment, and travel, and a stalling of imports and agricultural production has resulted in astronomical increases in prices (e.g., food, gasoline, chloride, etc.) and temporary unemployment. As sixty percent of Liberia’s staple food, rice, is imported and twenty percent produced in Lofa—one of the areas hit hardest by Ebola—food has become either unavailable physically or financially. While hunger is growing steadily, some find themselves forced to decide between starvation and Ebola as burial times without any adequate protective gear constitute their only employment opportunity.

Conclusion

The GoL’s failure to act promptly at the onset of the Ebola outbreak has led to unknowingness, confusion, and reinforcement of historical distrust in public authorities amongst Liberians. The Liberian outbreak and the subsequent collapse of an already weakened system has highlighted the importance of individual’s wellbeing and security. Health insecurity has triggered a worsening on all human security levels.

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"Ebola’s Human Insecurity." Compiled by the author.

The estimated number of Ebola victims is clearly only the tip of the iceberg, and there are no signs of improvement.  The dead abandoned by the roadside increasingly overwhelm the GoL’s capacities.

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"Dead Ebola Victim Abandoned in the Market, 8 September 2014." Photo by Wellington Sankawulo.

Sadly, my Liberian host-brother is right: “The situation in Liberia is totally hopeless. The government is not demonstrating any commitment to combat the virus.” And with every day that passes, Ebola threatens not only the achievements of the last decade but also peace itself.