Health Authorities Calm Over Limited Ventilators

The John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Monrovia. FrontPage Africa/Harry N. Browne

MONROVIA – Liberia has only six ventilators, one of the country’s many challenges in combating the novel coronavirus pandemic but health authorities say they are not worried about that. Why? They have not had to use the available, meager equipment.

“The absence of ventilators is not having any impact on us because none of our patients here has gone under a ventilator,” said Dr. Jerry Brown, who is the country’s coronavirus case manager. “We are basically using and combining our clinical skills, knowledge and experience to treat patients.”

A ventilator pumps oxygen into the lungs of patients struggling to breathe and increases their chances of survival. Normally, coronavirus patients with a history of lung infections and elderly people are most likely to relapse into respiratory difficulties.

About 80 percent of global coronavirus patients recover without going to the hospital, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)—the UN organ responsible for global health. Worldwide, one in six coronavirus patients become critically sick.

In Liberia, 34 people have died from the disease and 270 have recovered. Cases are on the rise, with 652 recorded as of June 23. President George Weah on Monday extended a state of emergency by 30 days and modified a nighttime curfew from 9 pm to 6 pm.  

Amid the soaring numbers of deaths and cases, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francis Kateh called on people to be calm, saying the limited number of ventilators does not pose any danger to the country’s fight against COVID-19. He added that ventilators are not a guarantee of coronavirus preparedness as the disease has ravaged countries with better healthcare systems such as the United States of America, Spain and Italy. “The issue about ventilators should not be a subject of debate here because we have not seen the need to use them on our patients here.”

But healthcare workers and infectious disease specialists urge the Liberian government to bring in the more of the machines as they could be needed at some point of the outbreak. Currently, there are 356 active coronavirus cases and 1,131 people who came in contact with coronavirus patients being followed up.

A man and a woman pass by a chalkboard newspaper providing information on the coronavirus pandemic in Liberia on May 28, 2020. FrontPage Africa/Harry N. Browne

“Liberia needs to purchase 1,000 ventilators, given the rising number of cases of the infection,” said Doctor Dougbeh Chris Nyan, an award-winning Liberian scientist who invented a diagnostic test that can detect many infectious diseases between 10 and 40 minutes.  “Colleagues in Liberia and other parts of Africa must be applauded for their clinical skills and success amidst limited resources and materials… Liberia is still among many countries that are unprepared to combat the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

The National Health Workers Union of Liberia (NAHWUL) shares Nyan’s opinion.

“Liberia is not prepared because we don’t have enough ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPEs) to treat patients. We are in dire need of these materials as we fight to contain the spread of the virus,” said Deemie Dearzrua the union’s secretary general. He advised authorities to seek the help of the international community to overcome the country’s “deficit.”

Apart from ventilators, Liberia’s health system woes, like other African countries, are enormous and many experts are worried about the chronic shortage of masks, oxygen and, even soap and water needed to slow the spread of the disease and treat the sick.   

Coronavirus could kill at least 300,000 Africans and potentially push 29 million into extreme poverty, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). It calls for a $100 billion safety net for the continent.

Liberia would need 602 ventilators if the pandemic peaks, according to estimates by the Imperial College of London. A country of 5 million people, six ventilators mean one to more than 833,333 Liberians.

The Liberian government and the WHO are procuring a consignment of ventilators, authorities said. 

“We are coordinating with other partners to address the issue of limited supplies of ventilators and other equipment to fight the pandemic,” WHO Liberia Country Representative Dr. Peter Clement told FrontPage Africa, disclosing additional 20 ventilators was underway through a collaboration between the government of Liberia and the World Bank. The World Bank did not immediately respond to queries for comment on the subject.  

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of our Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the American Jewish World Service. The Funder had no say in the story’s content.