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Sierra Leone, Floods and Coronavirus

By Abdul Suhood Komeh,
London, UK

Scientific consensus is that from now on, as in last year, the year before and before that, etc. And as far as the unforeseable future, two of the gravest threats to human existence are:
1. Global warming and its effects. For example, extreme weather conditions resulting in floods, mudslides, droughts, desertification, etc.
2. Global diseases. For example, AIDS, Ebola, Coronavirus, etc.

Typical of Sierra Leone’s rotten luck, right at this minute, we are battling both. Coronavirus has taken lives and disrupted economic prospects before March, 2020. Heavy rains and floods are currently causing damage and loss of property. In the past, injuries and fatalities have been incurred as a result of floods and a pandemic. Add brutal poverty to the mix, few countries are as beset with difficulties as ours.

There are no signs a respite is on the horizon soon. Climate change and diseases are here. Not tomorrow. Unless we act now, things could get worse. And, ‘if current tendencies persist,....... large parts of the world will become barely habitable, affecting hundreds of millions of people, along other disasters that we can barely contemplate’, warns the Progressive intellectual, Noam Chomsky. Owing to our geography - mountains/hills, rivers/sea, torrential rains, etc., Sierra Leone is rooted in the category of most-at-risk countries. Particularly for a lack of planning and infrastructure.

Political concerns have been expressed with an agency for the environment in place. Thanks to the science, interim solutions are known. Importantly, providing resources, there are enough citizens within and outside, with the acuity to guide the country against the twin threats. Yet, almost pathologically, we are dithering. As if deliberately edging ourselves off the precipice, literally to the sea.

On Diseases, the story is equally unassuring. Hospitals are woefully ill-equipped and understaffed. Even after the devastation wrought on us by the Ebola virus. Betraying the shameful reality that healthcare is still not the priority it should be. According to WHO data, 11% GDP spending is superior to our neighbours Guinea and Liberia, at 6% and 10% respectively. But we are neither Guinea, nor Liberia, who both fair better on life expectancy at about 60 years. Against 50 years in Sierra Leone. Maybe, our neighbours produce more health workers.

An article by Colan Robinson in the African Journal of Primary Healthcare & Family medicine reported that as of 2019, Sierra Leone’s ‘qualified health workforce of doctors, nurses, and midwives is 1000’. Indicating a shortage of 32,000 in relation to recommended standards for countries at our level. This puts into perspective the government’s judgement in purchasing fancy vehicles ahead of stocking hospitals with adequate equipment and ensuring timely compensations for health workers. Needless to say such decisions make for depressing reading but not entirely unexpected.

A fair guess is, years of political failure have subdued a lot of people to the thinking that we have acquired a ‘mental toughness’, adjusted to bad roads, poor electricity and water, chaotic traffic, and so on. Unfortunately, global warming, diseases, and natural phenomena in general, is indifferent to ‘national resilience’ - that mythical quality, exhaustively used by our leaders to hide dereliction of duty.

Withstanding epidemics and climate change requires anticipation, commitment and investment. Most importantly, political will and legislations. Without which, well, nature is continuous, evolving or revolting as it pleases.

Humans have survived to this point down to an inherent capacity to manipulate the environment to our advantage. Which is exactly what we do when we responsibly interact with our surroundings, invest in universities and colleges, fund scientific researches; build houses, embankments, sewage systems, etc. True, these things are costly. But failure to make timely intervention with what we can afford is even costlier, potentially catastrophic.

Global warming and global disease, as the prefixes suggest, are global issues. The Nobel economist Joseph E Stieglitz wrote, ‘no one in the world can protect himself. Only through collective global action - working together, cooperatively - can climate change be addressed. Similarly, if we don’t act in concert to contain highly contagious diseases, we risk facing global epidemics.’ That’s wholly true. Except that he left out one fact, specific to a country like ours: Until that moment the rest of the world, especially the most prosperous, selflessly galvanise for a genuine effort at managing the impact of global warming and diseases, the responsibility for our nation’s survival is ours. As things stand, the United States, one of the world’s great polluters, has withdrawn itself, unilaterally from the closest thing to a serious global framework, the Paris Climate Agreement.

No doubt, our pollution output due economic or cultural activities is nearly insignificant from a global context. However, poverty or lack of industry, are no shield from disease or climate effects. Instead, they increase our vulnerability. Precisely why we should marshal more thoughts and resources to these issues. Otherwise, erroneously normalising disease and climatic incidences, or if we perceive them like they were poor traffic management, we will continue losing valuable human resources, unnecessarily; existing infrastructure will be compromised beyond repair - costing more to replace; commerce and trade obliterated; poverty and homelessness will explode a hundredfold. The country itself, risks being wiped out, swathe by swathe.

Right now, not only is the science against us, Sierra Leone is, unfortunately, a perfect case study for the times: Poverty, AIDS, Ebola, Covid-19, environment disruptions, have all taken cyclical or permanent residency on our landscape. Now Imagine, all the losses sustained so far, are just a dress-rehearsal for what’s predicted.

The time is now, to formulate robust policies, fully costed and funded, to defend ourselves against the worst outcomes of climate change and pandemics. The time’s now, to end the culture of building structures that are not just a risk to their owners, but entire neighbourhoods. The time’s now, for parliament to create far-reaching and enforceable environmental legislations, including against aggressive foreign and local investments.

Finally, the time’s now, for parliament to commission a team of experts, from academia to civil society, to craft a comprehensive document that forms the basis for a national effort, regardless of who’s in power. Anything too short, we risk there not being a Sierra Leone soon. At least as we know it.