Approximately sixty percent of Sierra Leoneans live below the national poverty line. Ranked among the world’s poorest nations – 180 out of 187 countries in the Global Human Development Index, more than 60 percent of Sierra Leoneans live on less than $1.25 a day.
Majority cases of poverty in Sierra Leone stem from the fact that the country has around 70 percent of youth that are either unemployed or underemployed; and a 41 percent adult literacy rate.
Sierra Leone is heavily dependent on foreign aid, and suffers significantly from low levels of national productivity. The country is Largely reliant on mining and agriculture exports which are currently holding back economic recovery, after a brutal ten year civil war which caused the death of over 50,000 people.
Notwithstanding the high levels of poverty in the country, one fundamental remedy to this of late has been government programmes aimed at alleviating its impact on citizens, especially so now – given Sierra Leone’s vulnerability to disease outbreaks.
One should not forget in a passing the country’s decade long civil war which started in Bomaru, and the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak in 2014 which started in Sokoma and Kbomdu – all poverty-prone remote ends of Kailahun District in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone.
Unlike the EVD which started in remote Kailahun District, a new global Pandemic has loomed in Sierra Leone. President Julius Maada Bio announced the index case on 31st March 2020 of the deadly Coronavirus (COVID-19). Since then, the country has now recorded eight confirmed cases.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
COVID-19 pandemic started in China in December 2019, and since then has touched almost every nation, with Sierra Leone not being an exception.
Hence, the global health organization has recommended that one must wash hands regularly for 20 seconds, with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub; cover nose and mouth with a disposable tissue or flexed elbow when coughing or sneezing; must adhere to social distancing – 1 meter or 3 feet; and must stay home and self-isolate from others in the household if feeling unwell.
To achieve these precautionary measures, most nations in the world are in either complete or partial lockdown.
The government here, has successfully completed a three-day nationwide lockdown, but yet, poverty in Sierra Leone has been at the heart of debate as the country struggles to roll out more effective and sustainable measures.
Meanwhile, whilst the Medical and Dental Association of Sierra Leone has recommended for government to institute a fourteen-days nationwide lockdown in completion of the incubation period of the COVID-19, several rights activists have challenged this recommendation on the basis that Sierra Leoneans are extremely poor and that a two weeks lockdown would impose a very huge burden on the vulnerable poor who rely on hand-to-mouth survival.
The WHO Chief has also warned against countries shutting down their population without providing life’s essentials. The question remains therefore, as to how the government of Sierra Leone could lockdown a population of over 7 million, without providing lifesaving essentials?
On the other hand, the medics are of the opinion that sacrifice at this stage is very essential and that as Sierra Leoneans, we must all make sacrifice for the general good. They believe that the virus is a strange and complex enemy, and can only be defeated if people stay at home longer.
But this argument has been refuted on the basis that human dignity and sanctity are benchmarks of good governance. The belief is that medics are rich elites with everything in their homes to survive on. Hence in the event of a lockdown, medics are more likely to survive than the vulnerable, illiterate and poor masses.
Furthermore, with government issuing several new regulations, one would say that the law, as it stands is a result of continuous arguments between those who believe that 14 days lockdown is morally and practically justifiable, and those who see it as violation of human rights and dignity.
Thus, in Sierra Leone, this debate about the issues surrounding 14 days lockdown to curb the deadly COVID-19 has been heated over the past days. It evidently has taught us the importance of tackling poverty in the country.
Whilst several nations, including here in Africa, have gone weeks into nationwide lockdowns, Sierra Leoneans would find it very difficult to survive 14 days lockdown because majority of citizens are extremely poor.
Hence, the argument between those who oppose 14 days lockdown and those who support it, remains as dramatic and emotional as ever. The question now is – to what extent can Sierra Leone follow a restrictive or liberal path?