AUGUST 23, 2014 By Joseph Dumbuya
I had told you to close the borders with Guinea. I had told you to ‘put boots on the ground to man all official and unofficial crossing points’. I had told you following the outbreak of Ebola in that country in February, but you ignored my advice. Now look at the crisis we have in our hands. Had you listened to my advice we would not be grappling with this crisis. Now, I am offering new pieces of advice, please take them seriously. This is the emotion-evoking message Tink Salone is strenuously trying to send out to the government in its most recent press statement.
For a start, it is important to underline that long before Tink Salone thought of issuing a press statement some commentators and organizations had called on government to close the borders to stop the spread of Ebola into our country. So, the press statement from Tink Salone was simply re-echoing what had been in the public domain for quite some time. My position on this issue is that it is pointless to close the borders with Guinea and Liberia. This is because it is impossible to enforce and more importantly it is unaffordable.
I hold the view that the suggestion from Tink Salone cannot be treated seriously because it does not have any credible bases in research. The WHO is very clear on this issue. This is also corroborated by the United States State Department which notes in a recent statement on the issue that ‘there is no medical reason to close borders’.
Before the outbreak of the disease in Sierra Leone, some of us had been calling on government to ignore calls for a closure. I had written an opinion piece entitled ‘Ebola outbreak, the urgent need for MRU strategy’, in which I had argued that it is impossible to close the border because it is so expansive that we do not know how many unofficial crossing points there are. What’s more, people can always create one if they want to. I had summed up my argument by noting that, ‘You may close the Gbalamuya and two or three other international crossing points, if you may, but you cannot stop people from crossing them’. I was basically trying to say that if you do not let people enter legally, they can always let themselves in illegally.
The advantage of allowing people to enter legally is that you will be able to monitor who is coming in and who is going out. As such you will be able to screen them to pick out possible suspected Ebola cases. On the other hand, when you close the border you cede such control. As such, you risk having suspected Ebola victims entering the country without being screened. The implications are all too obvious.
This is what is happening following the closure of the border by the Guinean government. It is business as usual. I know a lady who defied the closure to let herself into Sierra Leone. She told how the closure has made little difference in terms of human traffic. What’s more, she used the official crossing point to enter Sierra Leone. She left Conakry for Pamlap days after the closure was announced. Once in Pamlap she used a footpath to a nearby location where she took a commercial motorbike for Le15,000 to the old customs post on the Sierra Leone side of the border from where she picked up a vehicle to Freetown. A niece of mine did the same recently. She went to Guinea for some important engagement and came back after a few days.
Now, if people can be so bold as to use the most notable official crossing point to enter the country, how about the unofficial sea and land crossing points?
There is also an economic argument to border closure which has been ignored because it is difficult to sell. The suggestion that the government should pinch from the Ebola budget to patrol the borders flies in the face of commonsense.
Tink Salone has not said that. I know! But when the bulk of government revenue is going into the Ebola fight and the boots on the borders is to aid that fight, there should be no speck of doubt what this is implying. The Press Statement of Tink Salone speaks of closing both the official and unofficial crossing points including the sea borders. It calls for boots on the ground to enforce the closure. Now, Tink Salone needs to proffer answers to the following questions should they be taken seriously.
Do we have any idea of the number of unofficial crossing points? My guess is, nobody has a clue. Do we have the security personnel to patrol the crossing points? I bet we do not have the numbers to do the job, even if we have the whole army and police on the borders. How much money do we need to patrol the borders especially the countless unofficial ones? You do not need to be a rocket scientist to risk a guess, which will run into millions of U.S. dollars monthly. We will have a situation in which we will plough in more resources into patrolling the borders than other more important areas of the campaign. It does not help the response of the international community has been lukewarm.
Now, should we decide to patrol some of the borders, since it is not possible to patrol all of them, what message will we be sending to criminals and smugglers? Would patrol stop people from entering the country? The answer is a big ‘NO’. Ask the United States of America, which is grappling with children from Latin American countries letting themselves into the country despite massive amount of resources ploughed into border control to prevent illegal entry. Also, the Guineans are learning lessons the hard way.
How about the revenue that will be lost to smuggling? There are thousands of our compatriots who make a living from doing business in Guinea. Closing the border will negatively impact their source of livelihood.
Since life must always go on even with the closure of the borders, people will either resort to alternative sources of making a living or continue doing business in Guinea through illegal means – smuggling. The chances are that many will choose the latter since fear of the unknown and the risks associated with starting a new business in a crisis situation is enough to deter even the boldest of risk takers. Now, how do you replace the revenue lost to smuggling as a result of the closure of the borders?
We know Gbalamuya Customs Post is a major source of revenue for the government. We also know that the bulk of revenue for the Ebola campaign has come from local sources. This was corroborated by President Koroma a few days ago in a meeting with the WHO in Freetown in which he expressed disappointment with the response of the International Community to the Ebola crisis in the country.
There is also a cultural argument to closure. How do you deal with Sierra Leoneans-Guineans leaving on either side of the borders to who this divide is irrelevant? I am talking of people who have to cross the borders on a daily basis to visit relatives, do business and engage in agricultural and political activities. I’m talking of the lady who brought the disease to Kissy Teng in Kailahun District after contracting it in Guinea where she had gone to attend the funeral of a relative. I’m also talking of the Susu in Kambia and the Kisis in Kailahun District and other tribes living on the borders.
Let me conclude this piece by focusing briefly on the latest press statement which seems to follow a pattern of re-echoing things in the public domain.
Of course there is nothing wrong with this per se. However, what is troubling is failure to advance solid arguments and reference to research or works in this area by scholars. This is important because governments have a plethora of suggestions to consider including those from within. Each of these will be weighed against the others before they are taken onboard.
Well, this is not unique to Tink Salone. Some of our civil society organizations are lazy. They are good at barking out instructions and suggestions which are poorly argued and therefore crumble when subjected to intellectual scrutiny.
Now to the suggestions, it should be noted that some of us have made wide ranging suggestions and advanced compelling arguments shortly following the death of Dr. Sheik Umar Khan. This relates to issues of messages, staff morale and support to dependants of deceased health workers especially their children. I had gone as far as suggesting that children of deceased health workers should enjoy free education up to university level.
But I must confess, I find the suggestion from the fiercely intelligent President of National Nursing Officer, Ms. Hassanatu Kanu which relates to having an insurance police for nurses involved with the Ebola crisis to be the best. I will appeal to the government to take this very seriously.
The release calls for the speedy addressing of issues of ‘mistrust, fear, suspicion and low staff morale among health care workers’ without offering any solutions to these challenges. It adopted the same approach for addressing the welfare of children ‘gravely affected by the outbreak’.
In terms of ‘disseminating the right information’ on Ebola, the media are the most competent for such a task. We are better-off not having the MOHS setting up a ‘dedicated medium’ for this task. I think we can take lessons from the Paramount Chiefs in Kailahun for giving Le1,800,000 to the Moa and SLBC stations in that district towards the Ebola campaign.