The world is in the full swing of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic which infected 58 million people worldwide and killed almost 1.4 million people. But in Liberia, people are getting ready to gather at polling centers on December 8, as officials scramble to quickly find solutions to enforce the public health protocols that could prevent a spike in new infections with the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.
Liberia’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Francis Kateh, said the National Public Health Institution of Liberia (NPHIL) partnered with the National Elections Commission (NEC) to ensure full adherence to the health regulation by voters and politicians.
As it currently stands, Liberians have all but abandoned social distancing and mask wearing requirements, as if the virus threat were gone. This behavior is even more obvious at campaign rallies, as politicians focus on getting out the vote, turning a blind eye to the disrespect of the public health protocols. And there is a real concern that these protocols will be disregarded on Election Day.
Attorney Mmonbeydo Nadine Juah, Executive Director of the Organization for Women and Children, an advocacy organization, has little faith that any of the health protocols will be effective or that voters will comply willingly with the health requirements meant to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
“We are seeing mass gatherings of people without masks and [not] staying six feet apart from each other. Both NEC and NPHIL must work collectively to put in place appropriate measures to enable people [to] vote on December 8 without being infected,” Juah said.
Politicians throw their arms in the air
Mohammed Ali, spokesperson of the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), said it is very difficult to ask people to social distance when you are gathering crowds of people at a particular point during campaign activities. Ali said all political parties are guilty of violating the health protocols with regard to social distancing because it is an impossible thing to do.
“What we can continuously encourage people to do, is to wash their hands before eating [and after] using the latrine; it is important not only to stop the virus, but to stop the spread of other diseases. While it is true [that] the party leadership will want to proceed cautiously with observing the health protocols when it comes to COVID-19, it has become something almost impossible to keep the social distancing as we carry out our different activities leading to December 8, 2020 elections,” Ali added.
According to the World Health Organization, on November 23 Liberia registered 1,554 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 82 deaths. But the number of new infections began going up again in Liberia at the beginning of November. Just for November alone, Liberia recorded a total of 128 new cases of COVID-19.
But experts fear that a spike in the new infection could happen after the December 8 election, if authorities do not quickly and effectively implement the necessary health precautions such as social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing.
Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Kateh, said a team of government officials will be moving around the voting centers on the day of elections to observe whether voters are following the health measures at the voting centers, noting that complacency is the result of the reoccurrence of cases. He said community leaders must reinforce the safety measures with their community members so that everyone is safe in Election Day.
LNP to enforce health protocols in a civilized manner
Police spokesperson, Moses Carter, said the Liberia National Police (LNP) is engaging political parties and their candidates to observe the health protocols during campaign activities across the nation to prevent the spread of the infectious coronavirus disease that can cause severe respiratory complications and even death.
Carter said the plan is for the LNP to engage the voters in a civil and proactive manner if they are seen to disrespect the health protocols currently in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “We are not flogging or arresting our citizens because they do not adhere to the law because there is no penalty spelled out for a person who violates these health regulations.”
Carter emphasized that the LNP alone cannot work to protect people from spreading the deadly virus, and the needed the cooperation of all political actors, not only to ensure that health protocols are respected, but also to ensure that there will be peaceful, non-violent elections where citizens can freely go to vote without feeling intimidated and harassed.
No free facial masks on Election Day
NEC Communication Director, Henry Flomo, said the Commission will continue to apply all of the health protocols throughout its workings until the government officially announces that Liberia is free of COVID-19.
Wash buckets will be placed at every voting center and voters will be required to wash their hands before getting access into the voting station. Mask wearing and six-feet social distancing will be mandated for everyone at voting centers.
However, the NEC does not plan to issue free facial masks to voters on Election Day, which is why it is especially important that they show up with their own personal mask to be able to vote safely. Flomo was hopeful that a goodwill organization, or several organizations, will step in to provide free masks to voters before accessing the voting station.
McDella Cooper, Political Leader of Movement for One Liberia (MOL) said that campaigning in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic has two important aspects that must be met: making sure that all people at public gatherings wear facial masks and ensuring that, if they are in a room, the room is not overcrowded.
She trusted that women voters, in particular, will adhere to the health protocols because women in general respect life, as they are passionate about saving. This is why, she said, women politicians who run for elections in this cycle have compromised to hold smaller political gatherings, and not large political rallies, to ensure that their voters do not risk getting infected.
This article was produced with support from Internews Liberia through the Liberia Media Development Program.