The impact of the Ebola quarantine on justice and livelihoods in Liberia

The impact of the Ebola quarantine on justice and livelihoods in Liberia 18 March 2015

In early August, my community, West Point- the largest and poorest township in Monrovia- was wracked by violence and instability of a kind not seen since the end of our long-running civil war in 2003. In fact, many citizens noted that the War was not nearly as bad as the rebels never showed any interest in West Point- there was never anything to steal.

My organization, the West Point Health and Sanitation Organization (WPHSO), has been in operation for more than a decade. The community is located on a sandy peninsula prone to flooding and with no sewerage, so sanitation was the issue we focused on initially. But it quickly became evident that poverty is a breeding ground for crime and injustice. So for the past year, with the assistance of our friends at the Accountability Lab, we have turned towards alternative dispute resolution as a means of strengthening our community cohesion.

Like many Liberians, we underestimated the threat of Ebola. Although the entertainment spots and bars in West Point often blasted a popular Ebola awareness song from April to July last year, most of us thought that the virus was a ploy by the government to steal aid money.

To the best of my knowledge, we did not see our first cases of the virus until the end of the July. This was the same time the government and international community began to take the disease much more seriously. In August, an Ebola treatment center was established in West Point to help us be better prepare to deal with the virus- but many of the patients were from outside the community and many of us were scared of becoming infected. Anger grew quickly.

The center was looted, patients fled, and the situation turned into a crisis. The very next day a meeting of community leaders and organizations was convened and I was named the Secretary General of the newly constituted West Point Ebola Task Force.

A few days later, the government, in a panic, placed a quarantine on West Point. Initially, this contributed to further tensions as protestors clashed with security officials and a young boy was shot in the leg and slowly bled to death. During this time of extreme tension, our task force was the community’s only link with the outside world. Members of the Task Force were able to travel to meetings with the government and international partners under a security escort.

Due to our geography, there is only one access point in and out of the community. A narrow and windy paved road (the only tarred road in a community of 100,000) is normally lined with hundreds of vendors hawking their goods. Motorcycle taxis buzz along, constantly swerving to avoid the pedestrians as there are no sidewalks. During the quarantine the economy collapsed. Our local court and police station were closed.

Justice became a central issue for citizens. Our mediators were at the forefront of addressing citizen grievances around families that had been neglected in the distribution of rations. We also collaborated with efforts to map the community and develop a system to track and identify households that needed help. People did not have enough to eat and there were significant attempts to manipulate the system to obtain extra quantities of the free rice, beans, and oil. We led efforts to resolve disputes, ensure the integrity of the system and show international donors that a complex distribution chain could be managed in West Point.

The quarantine was lifted but a disastrous national curfew remained in place which prevented fisherman from taking to sea early in the morning at optimal fishing times. It also led to many of the fish spoiling as our market women could not sell their goods on time. Many tried to flout the quarantine and were arrested and we worked to mediate those disputes too.

Overall, we resolved over 40 disputes during the months of August and September when Ebola related confusion was at its peak (we even resolved a dispute featuring the town crier we use to promote our work). Who knows what might have happened if these problems had been allowed to grow, and we are very proud of the progress we were able to make.

The situation has now greatly improved, but is still very hard. Many of us cannot afford school fees for our children; and often barely have enough to eat. Trust in the government is slowly returning but remains significantly lower than pre-Ebola levels. The recovery process will be slow- going forwards, and we will need to come together and work to heal the community over time. This will not be easy, but it is all we can do.

Ebola has been a brutal wake-up call for all of us and we’ve found that justice is at the heart of the challenges we face. We will continue to provide mediation services to citizens- free of charge and 24 hours a day- to build our community back better than before. With trust, we will find ways to deal with the next crisis.

Thomas Tweh is Executive Director of the West Point Health and Sanitation Organization and the Secretary-General of the West Point Ebola Task Force. This blog was supported by Brooks Marmon of the Accountability Lab.