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Ebola campaign: distractions and getting priorities right

OCTOBER 31, 2014  By Joseph Dumbuya

Concord Times’ Mohamed Massaquoi is reputed for out-talking and being upfront with his views. These qualities were very much on show when he was hosted on Monologue Programme last Saturday to talk about an Open Government Initiative (OGI) sponsored tour of border areas for an independent assessment of challenges posed by the Ebola disease and related issues.

As you would expect, he was full of praises for the financier of the tour – the OGI and its Director Khadija Sesay. He strongly urged President Koroma to listen to her a lot more, while at the same time warning him repeatedly against people around him including advisers who he branded as Liars. A reason for this could be to position himself as someone the President can trust with telling the truth unlike those around him.

I always feel sorry for advisers to our president including those of his predecessors. They have one of the most unenviable jobs in the country. They are unfairly targeted by shallow-minded critics for misleading the President. Unfortunately, we live in a society where the blunderings of Presidents are blamed on advisers, even for those committed in private, in the cover of darkness. Our presidents are saints. They do not make mistakes. Here, the rules of the game are different. The buck stops with the advisers. I will shelve this issue for another article in future.

With Massaquoi on the airwaves you can always expect some extra lectures on Development and Investigative Journalism, which I must confess contrast sharply with my understanding of both concepts. It would seem to me whenever he is struggling to come up with ideas to advance an argument or has been cornered, he would retort to giving a rambling lecture on either development or investigative journalism which bears no relevance to the issue being discussed. So, it came as no surprise his responses were interspersed with a lecture on the latter and reminded how his tour could pass for one. This is despite not unearthing anything or coming up with any revelation.

What we got as ‘investigative journalism’ were age old truths – porous borders, use of foreign currencies – Guinea Franc and the Liberia Dollar –  in border towns, terrible road network in the Kono District and no electricity for the district headquarter town of Koidu. Now, you would be tempted to ask, what is new or revealing in the foregoing?

It is an open secret that the borders are porous, very porous for that matter. Who does not know this? Also, who does not know we do not have the wherewithal to monitor, let alone enforce any border closure?

Of course, the roads are nothing to write home about. Even the major highway leading to the district headquarter town of Koidu is in a bad shape. But it is fair to note that these problems are not unique to Kono District. I am not sure the situation in Kono is worse than in most other districts. While it is true that some major highways leading to district headquarter towns have been paved, we still have some in pretty bad shape. But the airtime allocated to showcasing the problem in Kono is understandable since the presenter of the programme, David Tam-Baryoh, is a native of the district.

Also, it is no secret the Guinea Franc and the Liberia dollar are used in border towns. This has been going for as long as memory could serve. What is more, there is nothing any government or persons can do about it. And this has nothing to do with being patriotic or not. At issue here is the Guinean economy which is far bigger than ours, as such those in border areas are bound to engage more in economic activities – buy and sell – with Guinea than with Sierra Leone.

In the case of those living in areas bordering with Liberia, the reason could be due to the weight of the Liberian currency. But those who are pointing fingers should not forget that the U.S. dollar could pass for a parallel currency in Freetown. Many in the middle class in Freetown pay their rent in U.S. dollars because the landlords would not accept the local currency. Also, purchases of some value items are done in U.S. dollars.

When Massaquoi talk bullishly about challenges relating to porous borders in so far as the fight against Ebola is concerned, you can tell he is making a case for tighter border control or closure. I have argued before that border closures with neighbouring countries will only aggravate the situation because it is impossible to enforce. Also, closure is a panic measure with the potential to scare people away from the few established crossing points while at the same time encouraging them to use the many little known footpaths to enter the country. To assume we can stop our neighbours from entering the country is an illusion.

More importantly, should we decide to close the handful of official border crossings with neighbouring countries what message are we sending to most of the Ebola-free world which have not closed their doors to us? What’s more, we will lose the moral high ground to criticize those who adopt similar measures against us. Mind you the U.S. and UK have introduced screening at airports for those from Ebola-infested countries notwithstanding criticisms from health experts.

The problem we have with suspected Ebola cases letting themselves into the country stems partly from the confusing messages we keep sending out to our neighbours. People are not sure whether the borders are opened. This is because you cannot tell people that the borders are open and then turn around and increase security deployment in the few established crossing points. People would want to know the reasons for the build up along the borders when the country is not at war.

You know, this whole issue of border closure is becoming a distraction. It is distracting our attention from far more important issues. For instance, having the numbers to enforce security around quarantined districts and homes is posing a far more serious challenge to the Ebola campaign. Reports filtering in speak of an exercise needing urgent review should the desired results be achieved.

A reporter with Radio Democracy spoke of her shock at seeing members of a household in Lunsar disregard the quarantine and continue to mingle with the community as though nothing has happened. The few security officers meant to enforce the quarantine do not seem to understand what their assignment entails and went about other things. The Adviser to the President, Mr. Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, spoke about how a man who had been quarantined continues to go to work.

It goes without question that enforcing security around quarantine in the districts and the thousands of homes is more important than the apparent futile attempts at stopping suspected cases from entering the country. With troop build-up on the borders, we self-deceive that we can stop neighbours from entering the country. But the reality point to the contrary. This is a complete waste of resources because local leaders have been very effective at enforcing the by-laws relating to visitors to their areas.

A well thought-out approach would be to replace security personnel deployed at the major border crossing points with health workers from both countries to screen those crossing the borders. Where possible, there should be a lab to test those with symptoms of Ebola.

Another equally important issue bothers on the huge amount of resources now coming in for the Ebola campaign, which is being channelled through NGOs and UN agencies.  Issues of transparency, accountability and results are key to having value for money. It is therefore imperative the government and civil society keep an eye on how these resources are dispensed.

For now, apart from the brand new vehicles on show, the beneficiaries do not seem to have a clue as to what is happening with their money. While vehicles and foreign personnel are coming thick and fast, we have not seen a similar urgency in building the much needed treatment centers, isolation centers and labs. These are crucial. We have lost far too many compatriots to be passive spectators as assistance continues to flow in. Government and civil society should therefore step-up, come up with a comprehensive programme on how to coordinate assistance to ensure we have value for money.