During Ebola Pandemic, Liberia Held Political Rallies

While President Donald Trump has endured criticism from some for planning to hold one of his first political campaign rallies Saturday evening in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when many parts of the country are reopening after being shut down due to the COVID-19 threat, political observers should remember that Liberia managed to hold political rallies in 2014 during the much deadlier Ebola epidemic that was sweeping West Africa.

One could legitimately ask: Why can’t the United States do the same with our political rallies and even conventions?

We should not allow our constitutional rights to engage in free speech, peaceful assembly, political association, and the democratic process to be restricted because of paranoia and fear.

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The United States is vastly wealthier than Liberia and has exponentially more resources than that West African nation. In 2018, the U.S. gross domestic product was more than $20 trillion. Liberia’s GDP in 2018 was only a little more than $3 billion.

Do the critics really think we can’t safely engage in politics when Liberia was able to do it successfully, including holding national senatorial elections with in-person voting, in the face of an extraordinarily dangerous pathogen in terms of its infectiousness and fatality rates?

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Liberia was able to create polling places that protected voter health, and it did the same thing for political rallies and campaign meetings. Liberia did such a good job that the U.N. congratulated the country on organizing a successful election “under challenging circumstances, particularly in the midst of difficulties posed by the Ebola crisis.”

So, how did Liberia do it? With the help and advice of health experts from international organizations, including the World Health Organization and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (which is based in Washington, D.C.), the Liberian National Election Commission implemented detailed health guidelines for the conduct of the election related both to voting and campaigning.

It is probably no surprise that those recommendations mirror many of the safety protocols we are following when we go grocery shopping, visit pharmacies, or head to local hardware stores to take care of household repairs we finally have time for while we are home.

According to the guidelines released on Nov. 25, 2014, by the Liberian National Election Commission, “all political parties, alliances, coalitions, independent candidates, and their supporters” were “required” to implement “Ebola Preventive Measures” at “town hall meetings, political rallies, and other campaign activities.”

The “Ebola Preventative Measures” included “hand-washing corners and temperature-monitoring equipment at” political meetings. Campaign officials were told that these safety measures were to be “instituted at the point of entry/commencement of such campaign gatherings.”

Any person with a temperature higher than a certain minimum had to “be excluded and the public health authority notified.”

Everyone who attended a campaign event, rally, or town meeting was also required to follow the Ebola protocols, “such as washing of hands, having his or her temperature tested, and observing and maintaining a non-contact distance of at least three (3) feet between and amongst attendees.”

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The commission required that “all political rallies be held outdoors, utilizing indoor facilities when such is the only available option.” It also prohibited the use of “mass transportation” to get people to the rallies.

The guidelines for the election even set out the safety rules for “press conferences and media briefings,” where there would be gatherings of “media houses, political parties, civil society organizations, and other institutions.”  They were to follow the same preventative measures as at polling places, campaign rallies, and meetings.

Similarly, the Trump campaign has said that it will be checking the temperature of everyone going into the rally and providing hand sanitizer and masks to all attendees. (Masks were not something Liberia required.)

These measures seem sound, and I hope other campaigns—of any political party—follow this lead and get back into active-campaigning mode.

If Liberia was able to hold an election with in-person voting and in-person campaign rallies, town hall meetings, press gaggles, and all of the customary, normal, and usual activities that are the hallmarks of a working democracy, there is no reason that we cannot do the same.

In fact, we have much greater resources that we can apply to do it safely without adding to the health crisis we have been dealing with.

As my mother, who grew up in Nazi Germany, and my father, who escaped Soviet communism, often told their children, democracy is a precious but fragile thing.

We should do everything we can to carry on the political process in which we, the public, will decide this year who we want leading this nation, our states, and our local towns, cities, and counties.

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