Small traders in Sierra Leone and Liberia fear a much less effective response to COVID-19 than Ebola

Small traders in Sierra Leone and Liberia fear that the global nature of the COVID-19 crisis will divert much-needed attention and resources away from one of the world's most vulnerable regions.


While the world rallied around West African nations affected by Ebola in 2014, small traders in Sierra Leone and Liberia fear that the global nature of the COVID-19 crisis will divert much-needed attention and resources away from one of the world’s most vulnerable regions. Osman Benk Sankoh reports from Freetown. 

What do Sierra Leone and Liberia have in common? Effects of the civil war of the late 90s, internally displaced and refugee populations, and a failing public health system exposed for all its inadequacies during the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak.

Described as a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization, the three neighbouring countries were caught by surprise. Ebola was new to the subregion, and they were not prepared for it. Even if they had every other thing right, they did not have the resources to battle the contagion. Sadly, 28, 616 people were infected, and 11,310 lives were lost.

As the world battles a global pandemic that has infected more than one million people with over 68,000 deaths (and counting), the focus has turned to the preparedness, or the lack of it, of the least developed nations – Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea inclusive.

Advanced countries in Europe, Asia and the United States are overwhelmed. Their healthcare systems are crumbling to a virus that fails to discriminate. The question now is, will these world powers come to the rescue of Sierra Leone and Liberia or Guinea like they did during the Ebola outbreak of 2014 if coronavirus strikes harder? Ordinary folks and small-scale businesses are not waiting.

Sabato Neufville was 10 when civil war broke out in his country Liberia. He was staying with his grandfather, a worker at the now-defunct Liberian-American- Swedish Mining Company (LAMCO) in Yekepa, Nimba Country.

Overrun by rebels, Neufville fled to Guinea and later Ivory Coast where he became a refugee. A peace accord and the deployment of UN peacekeepers brought Sabato back to the country in 2004. He then joined forces with the peacekeepers to organise awareness-raising campaigns to get former fighters to surrender their weapons and join the disarmament demobilization and reintegration programme.

In 2014, he was also among the foot soldiers that targeted densely populated communities across the country with information materials and messages on the signs and symptoms of Ebola, and what one should do if sick or infected with the virus. He even supervised the production of an Ebola awareness music album by some famous Liberia musicians. The songs were aired on radio stations across the country. 

On March 16, he listened to President George Weah’s address to the nation in which the president disclosed that the country had recorded its first case of COVID-19. In his storage at home in Paynesville were personnel protective equipment suits, face shields, nose masks, goggles and plastic gloves. Valued at about $9,000, Neufville contacted the Ministry of Health and donated all the items to the minister. He also pledged his support to join the campaign to raise more awareness of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, at Camp Johnson Road in Monrovia, Humpheretta Reid is determined to provide reusable face masks for her compatriots through her organisation, Liberia Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE). The various protective masks she had seen around the world inspired her to produce locally made ones.

And knowing it was going to be a challenge to get them, she said: “I decided to create the African version. We too can make use of what we have to put an end to this whole coronavirus.” Humpheretta says disposal masks are mostly unavailable in Liberia, and that is why those produced by her organisation are being shared for free to Keke and Pempe (motorcyclists) riders, and rural dwellers. 

In Freetown, Sierra Leone, Foday Kamara has literally shut down his small-scale industry generating technologies for agro-processing factory. Known as Fomel Industry and National Industrialization Centre (FINIC), the company now produces hands-free washing stations instead.

Five workers spend 10 hours each day to produce about a dozen of the stations. It requires a rubber bucket, rubber bowl, a valve that allows water to flow, metal for the stands and a pedal for the actuation level, reveals Kamara, the managing director.

He said his motivation was to use simple technology in reducing or eliminating the transmission of viruses and other pathogens. With a water holding capacity of about 10 litres, the hands-free station is now available for sale for $80 and is being used to keep people safe from COVID-19.

In Lunsar, in northern Sierra Leone 70 miles from Freetown, 39-year-old Isatu M Sesay and 27-year-old Ejartu Sesay are among nine other workers at the Social Impact Training Center, a factory producing ‘Sierra Leone-made’ goods.

Like FINIC, the centre now manufactures hand sanitizers and sanitizer spray at an affordable cost. Isatu and Ejartu were worried that they were going to be laid off from work because of the impact of COVID-19 on business.

“Since we are not able to take orders for chemicals to manufacture our regular products such as shampoo, conditioner, body wash and other aromatherapy products, we decided to do the sanitizers to help prevent coronavirus infections,” said the mother of two. Ejartu says depending on the quantum, the sanitizers are available for sale for at least $2.

Isatu Kabia, CEO of the training centre, says, “we make antibacterial handwash that is of superior quality to most of the imported products. The additional emollients in our products prevent one from getting cracked or dry skin after use.”

She also points out the challenges small businesses like hers and others are facing due to the flight ban and other effects of coronavirus. However, having already faced a major health crisis, many Sierra Leoneans and Liberians will soldier stoically on. 

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