Liberia, a West African country of over 5 million people, is unfortunately all too familiar with the destructive nature of an epidemic. From 2014 through 2016, the country dealt with an Ebola outbreak. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “[t]he 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic was the first and largest epidemic of its kind, with widespread urban transmission and a massive death count of more than 11,300 people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.” In Liberia alone, Ebola claimed 4,809 lives, to say nothing of the ensuing economic cost and social disruptions.
Today, once again, the country finds itself in familiar territory with the the spread of COVID-19 threatening to upend the lives and livelihoods of its population. As of the end of April 2020, the country had recorded 141 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 16 deaths.
Liberia has put in place a number of measures aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19 in the recent weeks. In this post, I will highlight some of these measures.
Travel Restrictions and Border Closures
Following the first confirmed COVID-19 case, on March 16, 2020, President George Weah suspended all travel to and from countries with 200 or more cases. He also cancelled all non-essential travel by government officials and placed all non-essential government employees on paid leave until further notice. On March 31, Liberia closed its borders with Guinea and Ivory Coast, and did the same regarding its border with Sierra Leone on April 1.
Declaration of National Health Emergency
On March 21, the minister of health, Wilhelmina Jallah, declared a national health emergency. The declaration was based on the country’s Public Health Law, which accords the minister the authority to declare as an infected area any part of the country that “appears to be threatened by, any formidable epidemic, endemic or communicable disease” and to make rules for, among other things:
- removal of persons suffering from a communicable disease and those who have been in contact with such persons
- removal of corpses
- regulation of hospitals used for the reception of persons suffering from a communicable disease and of observation camps and stations
- the compulsory medical examination of persons suffering or suspected to be suffering from communicable disease
- registration of residents in an infected area
- restriction of residence in or movement from or to an infected area. (Public Health Law § 14.2.)
Flaunting any rules so made is a crime, on conviction, punishable by a fine, a custodial sentence not exceeding one month, or both. (§ 14.6.)
In the declaration, the Minister designated as infected areas two of the 15 counties in the country, Montserrado (where Monrovia, the capital, is located) and Margibi, imposed a 21-day lockdown on such counties, and
- closed all schools
- closed all bars, night clubs, bars, casinos, cinemas and other entertainment venues
- closed public and private beaches
- closed places of worship
- barred all gatherings involving more than 10 persons, including weddings and funerals.
- closed business that provide personal care services, including barbershops and salons
- limited the number of persons who could enter into a bank to five people at a time.
- limited the number of persons that could ride on public transportation vehicles at any given time
- suspended all commercial flights except cargo, chartered or special flights
- ordered supermarkets and large stores to only allow ten persons into their premises at any given time
- Suspended street hawking. (National Health Emergency Declaration §§ 1-10 & § 14.)
The declaration stated that the movement of persons in and out of the two designated counties was discouraged (the legal significance of this is unclear) and imposed mandatory hand washing with soap and clean water at all homes and all public and private establishments (the legal significance and enforceability of this requirement is also unclear). (§§ 13 & 15.)
Declaration of National State of Emergency
In response to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases, on April 8, 2020, President Weah, in consultation with the leaders of the country’s bicameral legislature, declared a three-week renewable national state of emergency. According to the country’s 1986 Constitution, the president may declare a state of emergency “only where there is a threat or outbreak of war or where there is civil unrest affecting the existence, security or well-being of the Republic amounting to a clear and present danger.” (§ 86.) The Constitution also states that
The President may, in consultation with the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, proclaim and declare and the existence of a state of emergency in the Republic or any part thereof. Acting pursuant thereto, the President may suspend or affect certain rights, freedoms and guarantees contained in this Constitution and exercise such other emergency powers as may be necessary and appropriate to take care of the emergency, subject, however, to the limitations contained in this Chapter [including a provision barring the President from suspending the Constitution or abrogating the legislature.] (§§ 86 & 87.)
The power of the president in this regard is subject to legislative oversight in that his declaration lasts only seven days unless upheld by the legislature. The Constitution states that
The President shall, immediately upon the declaration of a state of emergency, but not later than seven days thereafter, lay before the Legislature at its regular session or at a specially convened session, the facts and circumstances leading to such declaration. The Legislature shall within seventy-two hours, by joint resolution voted by two-thirds of the membership of each house, decide whether the proclamation of a state of emergency is justified or whether the measures taken thereunder are appropriate. If the two-thirds vote is not obtained, the emergency automatically shall be revoked. Where the Legislature shall deem it necessary to revoked the state of emergency or to modify the measures taken thereunder, the President shall act accordingly and immediately carry out the decisions of the Legislature. (§ 88.)
The legislature reportedly approved the president’s declaration and extended the state of emergency to 60 days.
During a state of emergency, in addition to the Constitution, the Executive Law authorizes the president to impose specific restrictions aimed at dealing with such emergency. This law states that “[w]henever there occurs any insurrection, riot, rebellion, lawless violence, or natural disaster sufficient to create an internal emergency, the President is empowered, to the extent necessary to deal with such emergency” and, among others, “[t]o declare in effect curfews or requirements for compulsory vaccination, evacuation of dangerous areas, quarantines, or other police measures.” (§ 3.3.)
Restrictions and Enforcement
In his April 8, 2020, state of emergency declaration, the president announced a number of restrictions, which unlike the minister of health’s national health emergency declaration are nationally applicable. The president put all 15 counties in the country under quarantine until further notice. He barred all persons from travelling between counties except for movement between Montserrado and Margibi counties, which are under quarantine as a single unit.
The president also imposed a fourteen day stay-at-home order starting April 10 on residents of Montserrado County, Margibi County, Nimba County, and Grand Kru County. On April 24, on the advice of health professionals, the president extended the stay-at-home order’s application period (by additional two weeks) and geography (to all 15 counties in the country).
During this time, residents may leave their homes only to procure food or health items, an activity limited to one person per household for a maximum of one hour, so long as the person does not venture out of his or her local area. Anyone in public must wear a face-mask.
All non-essential businesses and government offices will remain closed. Government offices deemed essential, including the Ministry of Finance, the National Port Authority, and the Liberia Broadcasting System, will operate with “skeleton staff.” In addition, the following are deemed essential and will continue their work:
- persons and entities engaged in the production, distribution, and marketing of food, beverages, pharmaceuticals, and medicine
- persons and entities engaged environmental and sanitation activities
- members of the security forces assigned to lawful duties
- essential staff of electricity, water, telecommunications, banking, and hotels
- fuel station attendants.
Persons designated as essential staff are exempt from the stay-at-home restrictions to the extent they limit their movement between their places of work and residence. All businesses permitted to operate during this period must close by 3:00 p.m. daily.
The president has authorized the armed forces to enforce his stay-at-home orders, which the Constitution permits so long as they remain “in subordination to the civil authority and the Constitution.” (Constitution of Liberia § 86.)