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By: R. Joyclyn Wea

Liberia is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases since the new variant hit the country a few weeks ago, and a public health expert has blamed the Incident Management System (IMS), which is spearheading the national response, for the worsening situation of the outbreak in the country.

The former Director-General of the National Public Health Institute (NPHIL), Tolbert Nyenswah, said health authorities are responsible for the latest spike of the virus due to their poor management of the outbreak. He believes that the IMS is not giving the public a fair assessment of the actual situation.

“I want to believe that what we are hearing and seeing is not the real story. Inasmuch as we think that our cases are on the increase, I’m afraid to tell you that we are actually underreporting,” Mr. Nyenswah said recently on a popular Liberian talk show. As an expert on disease control, Mr. Nyenswah was invited to provide a fair analysis of the crisis in Liberia amid the huge number of cases that are reported daily.

 The National Public Health Institute (NPHIL) has recorded 5381 cases with 148 deaths as of Sunday, July 18, 2021. The past few weeks have been the most intense practically putting the country on the edge with a record infection rate. Medical facilities are overwhelmed—lacking basic equipment and medication as well as beds to admit patients.

The United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) has ranked Liberia as a level 4 country, discouraging travelers from going to the country.

  Speaking of what he described as a precarious situation in the country, Mr. Nyenswah said there is a need for a review of the COVID-19 crisis management team if Liberia is to have a chance of a down-ward shift the situation.

 “There is a need for changes in the IMS structure as well as instituted protocols. Bringing the relevant people on board and instituting the appropriate protocols and enforcing them is the only way we can beat back this pandemic,” he said.

The IMS is headed by the Minister of Health, Dr. Wilhemina Jallah with NPHIL Director-General, Jane McCarthy, serving as a member of the team.

Nyenswah feared that more lives will be lost if the government does not take action by reviewing the system on grounds that there are too many missteps resulting in cases being under reported. He questioned the competence of members of the management group, noting that they are not up to the task to ensure that the pandemic is properly management.

Regarded by most as Liberia’s Ebola hero considering the leading roles in played in defeating the scourge, Nyenswah headed the IMS during the Ebola outbreak (2014-2016), coordinating efforts that led to bringing an end to the worst Ebola epidemic ever known.

His outstanding leadership ensured that Liberia became the first  of the three most affected Mano River Union countries (Sierra Leone, Guinea), to be declared free of the Ebola virus.

The former NPHIL head’s heroism during the outbreak won him numerous prestigious national and international awards.

After the Ebola crisis, he led the establishment of NPHIL, the first in the country’s history, and became its First Director-General.

In regard to the pandemic, Nyenswah noted that NPHIL needs to be more involved in the fight.

“NPHIL boss should on a daily basis analyze the data and advice the people on what to do. The IMS team need to leave the ministry of health and go to the airport fixed the issues there; there are people coming in and need their results 24 to 28hours let them get their results.

He added “Go to the National Reference Laboratory, sit with the team, give them gloves, put fuel in their tanks, ensure the equipment are working.”

He recommended a national testing center be established at both public and private facilities across the nation to speed up the fast-tracking of cases and testing as well.

“Liberia should not be testing 300 to 500 specimens a day during an outbreak like this rather the country should be testing from a 1000 to 3000 samples instead and the results and the results should come in 24 hours and not 48hours as it is happening now,” he advised.

He believes that there are more cases in the communities, and “that is why people are going to the hospital and pronounced dead on arrival and the reason why hospitals are full is because prevention has also failed.”

Taking into account the post Ebola structure that was set up and the personnel that were trained, the former Deputy Minister noted that Liberia is adequately prepared to battle any, but expressed frustration that such a system has been side-stepped by the current team.

He further stressed the need to put good epidemiologists in the field to find the real numbers of cases as what is reported is not accurate.

“Taskforce is not functioning as seem from the data. Need to start building tanks to support the hospitals when they are overwhelmed. Each county had an incident management system. Three hundred epidemiologists were trained and these people are excluded from the response, we need these people,” he said.

It would practically be impossible to contain the pandemic if the current structure of the IMS is not review, Nyenswah believes.

“Incident Management body needs to report directly to the president and not to any ministers.

“If the NPHIL Director is not qualified remove her and bring on board a more qualified person to do the job because Incident Management is a twenty-four hours job,” the disease control expert, who also served as Assistant Minister of Health and Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Prevention in 2012-2015. He was later elevated to the position of Deputy Minister of Health for Disease Surveillance and Epidemic Control 2015-2017.

Nyenswah believes the efforts against Covid-19 should be headed and coordinated by the head of NPHIL, as the statutory entity and Liberia’s version of the center for disease control, and not the Minister of Health as it is now.

Similar sentiment has been previously expressed by Montserrado County Senator, Abraham Darius Dillon.

“I’m baffled that NPHIL, which is the national institution to control disease outbreaks in this country, is not leading the efforts against the pandemic. I don’t think it is right for the Minister of Health to head the IMS,” he said, adding that the President’s decision to name the minister as head undermines the authority and purpose for which NPHIL was created,” the popular Senator said a few months ago.

Eminent Liberia Diplomat, Sara Beysolow Nyanti agreed with the former NPHIL head. She wants the government to redefine its strategy to stop the increase in the number of cases.

“We need to take politics out of this. More lives will be lost if the government does not do well,” she said on the talk show where Mr. Nyenswah was also a guest.

Beysolow who is also the United Nations Residence Coordinator to Nepal believes leadership and coordination are critical in the fight against the virus. “President Weah needs to exhibit leadership in order to stop our people from dying,” she stated.

This story was produced with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), through its Mobilizing Media in the Fight Against COVID-19 in partnership with FrontPage Africa.

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