In the developed world, the Coronavirus pandemic has destabilized society and threatens to cause mass death as healthcare systems are overwhelmed. The pandemic has the potential to be much worse in developing countries, where health infrastructure is weak and struggles to handle demand during normal times, let alone during a pandemic. In such times of panic, it is common for societies to rally around strong leaders for protection. The result of this can be seen in countries like Hungary and Israel where authoritarian leaders have used the pandemic as an excuse to consolidate power and sideline opposition. In Liberia, a country with a weak healthcare system and a President with authoritarian tendencies, the Coronavirus has the potential to empower President George Weah to further erase Liberian democracy and build a dictatorship in the name of preventing viral spread.
Crises give leaders the political capital necessary to make sweeping changes to protect the general welfare, but in the hands of authoritarians such power can be used to undermine democracy. The Coronavirus is one such crisis, it has the potential to overwhelm Liberia’s weak healthcare system, requiring decisive action. It is estimated that just fifty to one hundred cases of Coronavirus would break the healthcare system as it stands; the entire country has a single ventilator. Essentially, if the virus becomes widespread the existing medical infrastructure will be unable to contain it. Furthermore, there are currently thirty-one confirmed cases and ten suspected cases, meaning that Liberia is well on its way to crossing that mark. So far four cases have resulted in death. While this may not seem like much on its own, out of the 34 confirmed cases this comes out to around a 12% fatality rate overall for those infected. It is too early to tell if this rate will hold up, but if it does the coronavirus will be quite deadly, especially given the low healthcare capacity. The danger posed by the virus means that President George Weah must respond to this crisis to protect Liberia. However, he has embraced authoritarian tactics and rhetoric since his election and has only increased those tendencies under the Coronavirus pandemic, which he is using to solidify control of the country.
Coronavirus became a political tool of Weah to consolidate power as soon as it entered the country. Coronavirus was first diagnosed in Liberia on March 13th when Nathaniel Blama, head of the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency, tested positive. After Blama returned to Liberia while infected, President Weah “named and shamed” him for failing to follow proper virus screening protocols. Weah was using Blama as a scapegoat for the coronavirus. If coronavirus kills many Liberians, Weah can absolve himself of any blame and accuse Blama of causing the outbreak. This reminiscent of similar moves by other authoritarians like President Donald Trump, who has also been using scapegoats to avoid blame.
Since the virus entered, the government has embraced violent tactics in order to keep impoverished communities compliant with social distancing orders. In Liberia, where poverty is widespread, quarantine is hurting much of the country by denying the impoverished income necessary to purchase necessities, leading to popular resistance against social distancing orders. The government has turned to increasingly violent and authoritarian tactics to ensure that social distancing is followed. In Monrovia, the government has shut down the markets to prevent the spread of the virus. People who depend on the markets for survival protested this, so the government sent riot police to violently crush the protest. In contrast, the government has allowed many foreign-owned businesses to remain open. The authoritarian approach used by the riot police and favoritism towards foreign industry signals that the government is flaunting the rule of law. The government is not working to assuage economic concerns, it is suppressing dissent against its actions, while also providing special privileges to foreign businesses. This use of violence is not an isolated incident, military and police forces have been accused of other brutalities while trying to silence dissent, such as stabbing a woman who violated movement restrictions. The government has not hesitated to use authoritarian tactics to remain in control.
Weah has been mindful of his public image during the crisis and has been using the media as both a tool of building his cult of personality and sanitizing his crackdown. Part of the Liberian response to the pandemic is a song written and recorded by President Weah, in which he sings about preventing Coronavirus. The President’s song is thinly disguised propaganda that aims to distract the public from his use of violence and reshape perceptions of the government’s handling of the virus. He wants the response to be associated with songs on the radio rather than suppression of dissent. Songs are also common in building cults of personality. Dictators have previously used music as a component of cults of personality, such as Stalin’s name included in the Soviet national anthem, or the President of Turkmenistan personally singing nationalist music on television. Furthermore, President Weah has turned himself into the face, or more accurately the voice, of Liberia’s pandemic response, turning an effort by thousands of medical professionals into a personalist project. With his voice blaring on the radio, any successes in virus containment efforts may be associated personally with Weah.
President Weah’s willingness to pass blame onto others, use of violence, and granting of exceptions on social distancing to wealthy foreign corporations indicate that he prioritizes political expediency over actually protecting Liberia from coronavirus. Weah’s commitment to constructing a cult of personality is also a misuse of government resources; the President should not be writing and recording a song during a crisis, he should be managing the nation’s response. The response to the coronavirus is a political bludgeon aimed at cementing Weah’s authority under the guise of overcoming the virus. When social distancing comes to an end, Liberians may find their nation transformed as Weah tightens control.
Guardian News. 2018. Turkmenistan’s President Performs in Rap Video with His Grandson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsNioEnxeNs.
Harmon, William Q., and Robin Dopoe. 2020. “Liberia’s First COVID-19 Case Eclipsed By True Lies.” AllAfrica.Com. March 17, 2020. https://allafrica.com/stories/202003170609.html.
National Public Health Institute of Liberia. 2020. “#COVID19 Update.” Facebook. April 9, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/164280647325112/photos/a.347331779019997/966415860444916/?type=3&theater.
Paye-Layleh, Jonathan. n.d. “Liberia.” BBC News. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/c77jz3md70rt/liberia.
Rouse, Lucinda. 2020. “Liberia Braces for Coronavirus with Defunct Health System.” Aljazeera. April 3, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/liberia-braces-coronavirus-defunct-health-system-200403134851258.html.
“Trump Again Tries to Blame ‘dangerous and Corrupt’ Media as Coronavirus Crisis Escalates.” 2020. The Independent. March 28, 2020. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/coronavirus-trump-twitter-media-us-cases-pandemic-latest-a9431491.html.
Weah, George. 2020. President George Weah Singing Against Corona Virus. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=354&v=zOX6UP5ZncE&feature=emb_title.