Sierra Leone’s Struggle: When Political Turmoil Overshadows COVID-19
by Mahmud Tim Kargbo
If the coronavirus is the crucible, then politics is the forge. If novel COVID-19 is the mortar in which humankind finds itself, politics is the pestle. If the outbreak in Wuhan, quickly spreading to the rest of the world, was the trigger, then politics was the finger on it—pulling over and over and over again.
In a period of public health crisis, scholars and policymakers are often quick to ask the following question: What has the new public health threat revealed about a government’s health care system and its ability to respond in a timely and effective manner? Does the government have the infrastructure, resources, and technology needed to curtail the spread of disease? While focusing on health systems is important, this can often lead us to overlook what viruses reveal about the role, nature, and consequences of a country’s political environment. During the coronavirus in Sierra Leone, politics was exacerbating a public health issue, making the virus much more deadly than it should be. Politics can literally kill us.
Therefore, perhaps a more important question we should ask is: What have we learned about politics and the coronavirus in Sierra Leone? When can politics help, and when can it hurt our response? And what positive lessons can we learn going forward?
The coronavirus reveals both the good and bad of Sierra Leone politics: partisan division has marginalised certain segments of the population, contributing to a potentially worse health outcome for the suffering majority. Ongoing division along SLPP and APC party lines made it nearly impossible to achieve a swift compromise on key policy issues delaying the overall national response. Add to this the politics of nationalism and the sharing of responsibility between the SLPP, APC, and local health responders, further hampering state-level responses in a period of crisis and despair.
The Politics of Consignment to an Inferior Position.
Politics is ultimately about the allocation of people and resources, deciding about where to invest and where not to, and creating better societies. In democratic societies, those who are elected to governments, which reflects, in some ways, the will of the majority or a plurality of people in the population, hold the power to allocate resources. This leads, perhaps naturally, to an inclination to privilege resources to help those in power, thus representing most of the population. While there is ample reason to respect this approach because, on some level, political decisions that reflect the majority perspective ultimately respect the fundamental tenets of a democratic society, there is also reason to scrutinise this winner-take-all approach. Abiding only by the will of the majority also, by definition, sets aside the needs and aspirations of young political parties that failed to elect a government that reflected their vision for the country.
The politics of exclusion, rather than inclusion (which responds to the needs of all), has coloured Sierra Leonean life for the past several years. President Beo was elected on a platform that was inclusive, stoking political success in a furnace fueled by explicit targeting of alleged corrupt opposition members in the previous regime and inexplicit criticism of the main opposition party. Whether this was a successful strategy for President Beo is debatable. In a time of national crisis, it becomes abundantly clear that this strategy is dangerous. Creating groups that are relegated to a lower or outer edge and excluded during normal times fractures social cohesion and limits our ability to move forward collectively. In a time of crisis, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, marginalised groups who have been systematically excluded challenged our ability to respond in three ways.
First, groups that are accustomed to being marginalised are much less likely to trust government decisions or actions, making it harder for the government to bring about rapid collective action that can address national crises. During the coronavirus, when national appeals to physical distancing rely on general group adherence to national recommendations, this becomes a matter of national security, threatening the politics of marginalisation.
Second, and practically, the existence of groups that are marginalised and disconnected from the larger population creates reservoirs of disease if people in these groups are not treated. That undermined efforts to address the pandemic on a population level, which depended on entire groups behaving cohesively. We have previously seen examples of this where groups are saying COVID-19 does not exist in Sierra Leone, leading to an increase in the number of victims. During the coronavirus, a politics of exclusion leads to the likelihood of dramatic and poor outcomes because of these groups not being part of the greater whole.
A politics of exclusion threatens the health of the entire population, reaping consequences from divisive policies.
Third, excluded groups almost inevitably have an unpredictable interaction with established health care and social service systems, likely avoiding them as long as possible but then potentially using them en masse when fear or disease spreads. This represented an extraordinary challenge in the face of a pandemic where the greatest threat to health systems is a rise in the number of cases requiring more hospital beds, for example, than are available. These points to the harms incurred by a politics of exclusion, threatening the health of the entire population and reaping consequences from divisive policies before the crisis.
When What Doesn’t strengthen You May Kill You.
Crises do not tell us anything new—they reveal what was true to begin with. In this global pandemic, what is revealed is a political system characterised by the politics of marginalisation and bitter partisan divisions, at the expense of achieving what should be the goal of politics—creating a better society. While the country has moved along despite these political limitations through these times of coronavirus, this political dysfunction, literally, can kill us. How do we fix this? How do we fix our politics so that they serve us well, not poorly, in a time of public health crisis?
I suggest three solutions. First, we cannot allow a powerful majority and their interests to marginalise the few.
Politicians need to focus on marginalised groups and ensure they receive the support. Support for the few has become a partisan issue, with the APC casting themselves as the party of the marginalised and the SLPP, almost in reaction, resolutely avoiding any efforts that seem to pay attention to these groups. But this pandemic clarified that the problems of the few quickly become the problems of the many. A marginalised group can become a viral reservoir, threatening the health of all. Health ultimately has to be seen as a common good, supported by our collective investment, for the benefit of all.
Second, we cannot let partisan divisions and elections keep us from following the science and providing the truth. Science should not be green or red—or even a purple mix of the two. It needs to be a neutral green, white, and blue. Several public opinions have shown extraordinary partisan divides in how the science surrounding this pandemic has been perceived. Identifying how we can elevate the science to transcend these divisions seems to be a central challenge in the coming years.
Third, we should not let political nationalism get in the way. It wasn’t the time for the President to reflect on his nationalistic role during the Ebola outbreak and blame the former leader and chairman of the APC for waiting for a specific invitation to join the fight against the pandemic. In a time of crisis, presidents need to set their political differences aside and show leadership immediately by helping all national stakeholders, no matter the price.
Bipartisan support for rational actions informed by science can be achieved—and it is happening. But we cannot rely on crises and fear mending our political differences and find policy solutions. Solutions to the next crisis have to be sown when we do not have a crisis in our hands. Investing in public health infrastructure and in the science that will guide us during the next crisis should be bipartisan issues of utmost urgency. Whether we can get there may ultimately determine whether politics kills more of us in Sierra Leone than the coronavirus will.