Let Ghana’s (partial) coronavirus lockdown begin Featured

The novel coronavirus pandemic is destroying citizens across our world. No doubt, Ghanaians should be deeply concerned by the threat and the consequences of the pandemic for the lives of all people, and especially the people of this country, if it is allowed to get out of hand. The coronavirus shutdowns worldwide over the past two weeks have brought some countries to a halt. None of us has ever seen so much global economic activity vaporise so quickly – within days or even hours.

Clearly, Ghana, our beloved country, is not prepared for this pandemic. Indeed, no country is really prepared for it – not even countries with highly developed health-care systems. Almost all are crying out for help. The problem is that here in Ghana, as in other African countries, we are still not equipped to face the threat this virus poses to the lives of all citizens. We are deeply in trouble, especially taking into consideration the shortages even before the pandemic of equipment: the lack of basics such as surgical masks, gowns for medical staff, rubber gloves, respirators, ventilators and hospital beds and our poorly motivated doctors, nurses and other clinical staff.

Ghana is finding that it has limited means to protect itself as the feared virus escalates. By the time of President Akufo-Addo’s speech last night to the nation on the novel coronavirus epidemic, on 27 March, the number of known victims had gone past 130 and there had been four deaths. Meanwhile, testing remains patchy. Years of underfunding, neglect, corruption and lip-service have debilitated our health system and made all of us very vulnerable to this pandemic.

Catch-22

The number of people afflicted keeps on rising, and still we do not quite know how the coronavirus will affect our lives in the months to come. How will the vast majority people in our rural areas get to a doctor in the event of affliction by the disease? That is one small question officials have not yet been able to answer to anyone’s satisfaction, two weeks in to Ghana’s direct experience of the pandemic.

Unfortunately, it seems most Ghanaian citizens have decided to adopt a fatalistic approach to the question of what we ought to do to protect ourselves. To them, “all die be die” and life goes on as usual. Thankfully, a tiny minority have absorbed that it is critically proper that we do the right thing to protect ourselves. The painful fact, however, is while we are preparing for the worst, the means at our disposal at present will not enable the system to get behind every Ghanaian. Decades of economic mismanagement, misrule and corruption have exposed the weaknesses in our health service and are exposing all of us to the possibility of a gruesome and painful death.

It is a deceptively tricky time. The questions we ask start small, but then expand. The first-order question around this virus is obvious: How does everyone keep from getting it? If you get it, how do you keep from spreading it to other people? How do we deal with the fear that is building up and the tonnes of fake news around us?

“Wash your hands” and “observe social distancing” now seem to be the agreed-upon solutions. We are still grappling with the idea that people should “stay at home”. However, although limiting person-to-person interaction may be the only way to control the spread of the coronavirus, some economists and public health experts say social distancing may be a very difficult option for the hundreds of thousands of workers in Ghana’s informal sector. Tactics being employed in other countries are just not feasible in Ghana, they insist.

The first priority should obviously be equipping the hospital system and protecting front-line medical workers. We need to create a system for population-wide testing and distribution of protective gear to workers interacting with the public to protect them against the spread while allowing for ordinary work. Sadly, there is a catch. This plan would depend on the availability of resources – but that is precisely what this nation lacks.

Indeed, for what ever course of action our leaders choose, there are grave social implications and economic costs for each of us and for our country as a whole. Workers in the informal sector really need their daily wage to sustain their families and to buy food and drugs. It will be extremely difficult for them to adopt social distancing because they live in compound houses; they work in crowded markets and get around by public transport. The situation for them is indeed dreadful. There are no easy decisions to be made here.

Away with hawkers

Trying to fight to stop the spread of the virus now will cause severe social and economic difficulties for the majority of our people who work in the informal sector. This we know. However, that does not mean we should fold our arms and refuse to take necessary and effective policy decisions and action to save lives in the pandemic. We have been told that the price of failing to slow the spread of the virus will be a health-care system overwhelmed by the mortality rate, which would shoot up to unimaginable levels. We should take these warnings seriously.

The advice especially from the Ghana Medical Association and Trades Union Congress should be taken seriously. The answer to our current situation requires that we highlight the full menace of COVID-19, and to stop going about business as usual and hoping for the best. To protect our way of life, we need to adopt a targeted approach which limits the spread of the virus but still lets some people and essential service providers go back to work and resume daily activities. We need not spread fear and panic. That is why, from the start of the crisis, some have advocated a partial and not a total lockdown, as proposed by many others.

The advantage of a partial lockdown is that it would make our attempt to fight the pandemic appear urgent and inexpensive, prep Ghanaians to take personal responsibility for their actions and prepare us for when the need for a full-scale lockdown arises. Moreover, if, as the evidence suggests, the virus is enormously dangerous to people with certain medical conditions and those over 70 years old, but a much smaller risk to those under the age of 70, shutting down the entire country now is probably a bad idea.

The immediate imperative is to clear the streets and pavements of Accra and Kumasi, and to restrict both vendors from makeshift stalls and those on foot from selling in the open. Our city markets should be made to set up shop on two agreed days in every week for foodstuffs and once a week for non-essential commodities. This is the practice in most of our rural markets and it can be replicated easily in our cities. Meanwhile, the supermarkets should remain open, provided they adhere strictly to rules of good hygiene and social distancing.

Ghana’s future has a price

Although one is acutely aware of the difficulties that a partial lockdown will cause self-employed people, and the stress families will probably go through, it is important to note that an escalating COVID-19 outbreak would take a bigger toll than we can imagine. And if that were to happen, no one would be safe.

The decision by the President and the government will exact an enormous price on all citizens. No matter how painful a partial lockdown will be, this weekend was the moment to take that decision, rather than wait to take draconian action later with our current weak health-care system already in deep crisis. It would be foolish to give up on the idea of partial lockdown before it has the chance to succeed. We must discuss this without the resorting to the usual unreasoned outbursts, politicisation and reckless emoting.

Should we allow all individual citizens to go through pain, and should we disturb the economy, all to save our beloved Ghana from the rampaging coronavirus? The only answer possible is “Yes.” Sometimes it is painful to do the right thing. Now is the time “to destroy the village” (partly) in order to save it.

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Last modified on Sunday, 29 March 2020 11:00

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