Abdulai Mansaray: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 02 January 2021
As we usher in the New Year and hurriedly see the back of 2020, it will be remembered for anything but the Pandemic. Covid-19, as part of our daily lives is beginning to feel like forever. The ravages of this pandemic has been worldwide.
Sierra Leone has not been spared from its deadly impact. But as a nation, we should be grateful that the losses, though one life is too many, have been relatively low. This is not to minimise it, especially for loved ones. But take a look at the virulence of this virus and its associated death toll.
The Western World has the best health care systems available to mankind on earth. Even with the best health care, it continues to wreak havoc as societies creak and crack under its weight at Armageddon-esque proportions. Some are even wondering whether the end is nigh.
At the time of writing, the United Kingdom had registered 72, 548 deaths, with 1.82 million worldwide. The UK is widely in Tier 4 status, one step from a total national lockdown for the 3rd time. But even with first class healthcare systems, treatments and the various vaccines, the Western World relies heavily on the preventive measures of hands, space and face hygiene or restrictions.
With this in mind, what hope does our country have with this virus; should the worst happen? Allah forbid.
Our healthcare system or the lack of it makes it compelling that our best chance, if not the only chance against this virus is a preventative approach. This means that maintaining social distance, using our masks and religiously observing hand hygiene should be imperative. Our experience with the Ebola virus should be a gentle but painful reminder. But are we honestly observing the hands, face and space measures as they should be? Don’t answer that. The adage “PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE” has never been so apt.
Unfortunately, as expected of the virus cycle, a new variant has mutated into a reported more virulent strain. In response, President Bio’s government has made and continues to make painful and sometimes controversial decisions, all aimed at stemming if not preventing the spread and treatment of the virus.
President Bio’s government has recently revised the screening of in bound passengers at Lungi Airport. “Effective January 1, 2021, passports of ALL inbound passengers SHALL be withheld at the Lungi International Airport by the Immigrations Department until a negative Covid-19 PCR certificate is issued”. According to the press release, this is because “Sierra Leone has witnessed increased volumes of airline passengers particularly for the past three weeks, and disappointingly, some of them are deliberately providing false information on health locator forms, which makes it practically difficult or impossible for Surveillance teams to track positive cases.”
The temptation to condemn such a practice as an attack on our rights is irresistible at the best of times. To all intents and purposes, it seems like a very drastic measure. But do drastic situations call for drastic measures? Is this guidance justified, proportionate, or a sledgehammer to crack a nut?
At this point, it’s worth looking at the need for health locator forms. This form is seen, among others as one of the best “circuit breakers” in the spread and fight against the pandemic. Travellers are required to supply their details, including but not limited to their address, phone number and alternative contacts in their country of arrival.
As mentioned in the statement, the aim is to ensure that people who may unfortunately test positive, following a PCR test on arrival at the airport can be easily traced, isolated or treated as required. In simple terms, it provides a footprint for travellers across the globe.
Considering that the virus does not exist in a vacuum, and that cross infection or risk of transmission is from person to person, we are therefore potential carriers and vectors. The risk therefore increases as we move from place to place, hence lockdowns are fast becoming fashionable.
So, which countries are regrettably leading in the world’s Covid-19 league table of infections and death rate? Europe and the Americas. Where does the majority of inbound visitors to our country come from? Don’t answer that but you get my drift, right?
Even though passengers arriving at our airport require proof of PCR negative test result within a 72-hour time frame, that is no guarantee that passengers may not have caught the virus since that test 72 hours prior That is why, even with the negative test result, it is clinically prudent that we are required to carry out a further test on arrival.
Just imagine spending a 6-hour flight with strangers from various parts of the globe. The use of facemasks is enforced, except for meal times or toilet breaks. Even at that, how many people keep their masks on for the entire flight? Picture that and see how realistic it is that a planeload of passengers is potentially a flying breeding ground for Covid-19.
Are you getting the picture of why it is imperative for ALL PASSENGERS to supply ACCURATE INFORMATION on the health locator forms on arrival? As a passenger, how would you feel if you learn later that one or more people on your flight later tested positive for Covis-19 but that the authorities could not locate them, thanks to inaccurate information on their Health Locator Forms? Imagine if you may have shared the same row with that individual.
So, while some may see the Health Locator Form as unnecessary or as an irritation, it is in our collective interest to follow the procedures and supply accurate information. Sadly, some of us in the diaspora tend to turn our nose up at such requirements or try to flout the rules at our national airports, while religiously adhering to the same rules and procedures at Western airports with no fuss. Yes, you guessed right; “a prophet is honoured except in his home”.
Unfortunately, our government has had to resort to this new measure as one of the best ways available to it – thanks to our deceit, disrespect for the law, the procedures, and downright recklessness.
Those who flout the rules are in the minority, but unfortunately, the majority will be tarred with the same brush. But that does not mean that such a practice will be free from inherent risks.
This is no attempt to accuse the Immigration or other officials, but there is no doubt that many passengers would be worried about their identities. The fear of having one’s identity being compromised will no doubt be of concern to many passengers. The scourge of identity theft is no stranger to us all. But let me make it clear again, that this is in no way a smear, allegation or doubts about the integrity of our officials. Whether it is at Heathrow, JFK, Charles DE Gaulle or Abuja, leaving one’s passport with immigration officials at the airport is never for the purpose of safe keeping.
There is every reason to trust that the government will ensure that these documents will be handled with the trust, security and integrity they require. But that is where the situation brings up its own set of ironies. We are quick to accuse our officials, and sometimes rightly so of corruption. While many do not have a high opinion of our baggage handlers, the man with the trolley and even the guy pestering you to buy sim card at the airport, we tend to see nothing wrong with supplying the wrong information on the Health Location Forms. How difficult can it be to give your correct details for a place where everybody knows your name, and we call it home? Oh dear.
Jokes aside, withholding the passports of passengers until results of the PCR tests, is no guarantee in the fight against Covid-19. But it is a small step. A journey of one million miles always starts with a step.
This is specially so when you consider our social distancing measures in the country. You and I know that social distancing is only happening in all but name. Still, our country has comparatively, largely been spared from the unforgiving ravages of Covid-19. If this is to continue as we pray, our hope lies overwhelmingly in the preventive measures. That is exactly what Bio’s government is doing or forced to do. (Photo: Author – Abdulai Mansaray).
Thankfully, vaccines are now sprouting left, right and centre, as the world faces a race between Vaccine and Virus. While I am still waiting for the roll out of a malaria vaccine, I will take comfort, though not complacence in the hope and prayer that there is a God, watching over us.
Our local herbalists will soon announce their very own, newly developed vaccine – no dosage required.
Did any good thing really happen in 2020? Well, you are reading this article; so be thankful to Allah; and Palo Conteh has benefitted from Bio’s Presidential pardon. What a start to 2021. Sometimes, you don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.
Happy New Year to all. Don’t forget to turn the lights off when you leave the room.