MONROVIA (AFP) – With its collapsed health service, sick and poorly equipped security forces and broken economy, Ebola-hit Liberia finds itself on the brink of complete societal breakdown, experts warn.
The already impoverished west African state was on the slow road to recovery after 14 years of ruinous civil war ended in 2003, following the deaths of 250,000 people.
But Information Minister Lewis Brown recently warned that the epidemic, which has left more than 1,800 dead so far this year, risks plunging Liberians back into conflict.
Many observers of the country’s latest devastating crisis, while stopping short of talk of war, worry about the heightened risk of unrest in a country stalked by death.
“We have a lot to worry about. If we have thousands or tens of thousands more deaths, that’s going to have a very destabilising effect,” said Sean Casey, director of anti-Ebola operations in Liberia for the International Medical Corps (IMC).
A humanitarian worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, reflects growing concern among politicians, analysts and health care workers over the possibility of a “social explosion”.
“There is the fear, frustration, anger at the impotence of the government, and the associated economic destabilisation,” he said.
Monrovia, a sprawling, chaotic capital city of more than one million inhabitants, remains under control but gives the impression of a powder keg that could ignite at the slightest provocation.
Early Saturday, police came to investigate a body left lying in the street, the apparent victim of a murder.
A small crowd gathered, watching as a truck with the word “Ebola” emblazoned on the side pulled up, called just as a precaution.
Suddenly the crowd began yelling, pelting police officers with stones, and a brief scuffle ensued, in which at least six men were arrested.
The force assured locals that they would investigate claims that police had killed the man because he was out during the nighttime curfew.
The atmosphere is just as tense outside Ebola treatment centres, where large crowds of relatives gather, deprived of news of their loved ones.
“We beg the international community to find a solution before everything goes off here,” cries Kevin Kassah, a young man in the middle of one such angry crowd.
Woefully short of manpower, security forces do not intervene in the protests of these seething gatherings.
Several police stations in Monrovia have closed after officers died of Ebola fever, and a military camp on the outskirts of Monrovia has reported around 30 sick soldiers, according to a diplomat.
The health system – embryonic at best before the crisis, with some 50 doctors and 1,000 nurses for 4.3 million people – has been hit hard, losing 89 health workers out of 184 infected, according to the World Organization Health Organization (WHO).
“A lot of hospitals are closed right now because the staff died,” says Casey, of the IMC.
In a stark illustration of the crisis, the country’s most senior medical officer is currently in quarantine after her deputy died of Ebola fever.
The WHO and various charities have stepped in to fill the gap left by the weakened authorities, basing their activities in a new but desperately short-staffed “Ebola Operation Centre” run jointly with the government.
The World Bank gave Liberia 41 million euros ($52 million) last week towards its Ebola response, but the government, lacking the resources or the confidence to manage the money, immediately handed it over to the United Nations for the maintenance and construction of treatment facilities.
In another symbol of the breakdown of governance and heightened tension in the capital, a male junior finance minister was sacked last week for assaulting a policewoman. No sector of society has been left untouched by the crisis.
Schools have been closed for months with no reopening date in sight, and unemployment is soaring as both the formal and black-market economies collapse.