*By A. Alvin Winford
When the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Liberia in March, ordinary Liberians were of the initial thought that handling the pandemic would be mainly about preventative measures. Little did they know that the agony they experienced from State Security in the name of “law and order” during the heyday of the Ebola virus disease which swept across the West African nation would return in different form. Amidst the State of Emergency during the Ebola crisis, 15 year old Shaki Kamara was gunned down by members of the Armed Forces of Liberia in the shanty community of West Point in Monrovia.
On April 8, 2020 President George Weah declared a State of Emergency in curtailing COVID-19. During a State of Emergency, the Liberian Constitution provides for the fundamental rights of citizens to be protected. Cognizant that some Governments could use the COVID-19 lockdown stringent measures to clampdown on their citizens; UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in April urged States to prevent COVID-19 from creating wider inequalities amid extensive suffering. As reports filtered in of increasing State Security brutality against peaceful citizens in Liberia under the guise of breaking curfew as the result of the State of Emergency, the Civil Society Council of Liberia called on the Government of Liberia to stop brutalizing its citizens. Adding his voice was the former police chief who reminded the joint security forces that they were under mandate to protect citizens during the State of Emergency.
These cautions came against the backdrop of police using excessive force in chasing citizens off the streets at the beginning of the lockdown in Liberia. While citizens and the police were clashing on one hand, the Armed Forces of Liberia which was brought in to augment the strength of the security forces were on the other hand taking laws into their hands leading to a woman being victimized. In Kakata which is about 43.5 miles from Monrovia, a pregnant woman was beaten by Drug Enforcement Agency for violating 3P.M. stay home order as the result of the State of Emergency. Even children are not being spared from the brutality. In the West Point area of Monrovia, a family of a three year old child who died as the result of police brutality during the State of is yearning for justice.
Besides State Security brutality, there are concerns that as family heads lose income, children and women would be more vulnerable to violence as much attention is now on COVID-19 and not domestic and sexual violence. To worsen the situation, the school which provides some form of protection for children is closed. Also, there is mounting concern that being that girls are not in school, the likelihood of they being vulnerable to forced and early marriage is high. This anxiety is confirmed by the World Bank when it affirmed that every additional year of secondary school may reduce marriage for the girl child before reaching 18 years by five percent or more.
While the State of Emergency is important in addressing the threat that COVID-19 poses, if caution is not taken by the State in protecting its population against security excesses, the envisaged good intention would be a mirage. The protector must refrain from being the abuser; and when that happens the fight against COVID-19 would be a collective one and it is only with the support of the vulnerable population that an enemy such as COVID-19 can be overcome. Draconian measures against the vulnerable population is not the solution to the fight against COVID-19.
A. Alvin Winford is the Program Manager at the Non-Profit African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) Liberia. He is currently a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at American University - Washington College of Law DC where he researches on trafficking in persons especially women and children, and the public harms of pornography in Africa.
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