Gbarnga – Authorities in Bong County have intensified awareness efforts aimed at encouraging people to adhere to social distancing, as confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to increase.
To date, the county has recorded 22 confirmed cases, with four deaths – while concerns intensify that the public is no longer complying with health protocols including social distancing, despite public health experts’ advice that it is one surest means of slowing down or stopping the spread of the disease.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social distancing, also called physical distancing means keeping space between yourself and other people outside of your home. This includes staying at least 6 feet (about 2 arms’ length) from other people, do not gather in groups, staying out of crowded places and avoiding mass gatherings.
In Bong County, Superintendent Esther Y. Walker is cognizant that to curb the spread of the virus, people must practice social distancing in public places like entertainment centers, bars, and markets, among others.
She said: “We want to ask our people and families to be responsible, stop gathering to public places in huge numbers, let’s observe the social distancing advice given by our health people.”
Superintendent Walker is worried about what will happen in the county – which faced serious challenges during the recent 2014-2016 Ebola Virus Disease outbreak – if people continue to downplay the importance of prevention measures, including social distancing.
“We have to be smart enough in the fight against this disease as people…Let us stop the too much visiting of our girlfriends, boyfriends and even family members,” she said.
Meanwhile, the superintendent of Bong County’s Marketing Association, Joseph Saykor has urged marketers to suspend all local and cross-border travels – which he said increases the risk of getting infected.
“In my mind, one way for a person to not come in contact with an infected person of COVID-19 is by avoiding large gatherings. We know that life is hard, but remember that your health matters a lot,” Mr. Saykor said.
Several sectors in the county have considered new approaches to prevent the spread of the virus. The court system has also adopted new measures including the suspension of jury trials at the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in Gbarnga.
Judge George C. Katakpah of the Sexual Offenses Division of the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court said the decision is to avoid “clustering people together in an area”.
This is a mandate that comes from the Chief Justice of the Republic of Liberia, and it seeks to prevent putting people who serve as jurors at risk, he said.
At the same time, Judge Katakpah said that the Ministry of Justice is working to ensure that the population of inmates at the Gbarnga Central Prison is significantly reduced.
There are several fast track trials being held for pre-trial detainees as human rights organizations provide free legal services for hundreds of pre-trail detainees and inmates who were sentenced for misdemeanor.
The court is not the only institution initiating measures to enhance social distancing in the county. The religious community is also doing its part.
Since the resumption of worship service at churches, the County Christian Association (BOCA) said it has urged its member churches to follow all the health protocols.
Reverend Lahai Zayzay, president of BOCA, said the organization has set up its own taskforce to monitor churches’ activities to determine if they are following health measures during worship services.
“Our taskforce will move from church to church observing their congregations, if they are obeying the rules,” Rev. Zazay said. “For example, washing of hands and social distancing and avoiding shaking of hands.”
The government has ordered that churches should only allow 25 percent of their congregation during a period of worship service. This means, a church with a huge congregation may have multiple services every Sunday.
Meanwhile, Abu Swaray, Chief Imam of Bong County, says he is struggling to respond to denials about the existence of the virus among Muslims in the county.
Said Imam Swaray: “Many Muslims are still denying the facts that the coronavirus is real in Liberia, so they are not adhering to social distancing guidelines which limits the spread of the disease. Even during prayer times, some of them don’t agree to be divided into sections, but we will try our very best to get them to understand and follow, so that we can combat this ugly disease from our country.”
Meanwhile, some people are finding it difficult to abide by the health regulations like social distancing, because according to them it disrupts normal business activities and creates economic hardship.
Washington Browne, 31, a motorcyclist of Rubber Factory community in Gbarnga, says following the social distancing regulations has reduced his income over the last couple of months.
The father of three children says, “It is very difficult to cater to my family due to all these regulations that COVID-19 has brought upon us”. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Browne says he earned at most L$2000 a day – but now makes only half of that.
However, despite the economic challenges, Browne says he is still convinced that practicing social distancing can help slow the infection rate in the county.
“It’s quite challenging for us cyclists, but we have no other means. Even though things have changed for the worst, we must abide by the different health protocols in order to remain safe,” he said.
Browne’s understanding of social distancing strengthened following several calls from the county’s motorcycle union president, Sam Elliot, who urged motorcyclists to carry only one passenger at a time.
“Even though the country is hard for all of us, but remember that your health matters,” said Elliot, when he recently spoke to his membership.
“So be careful as to how you go about carrying people from one destination to another, because you can’t tell whether the person that you are riding has the virus or not.”