Statesman Opinion: Of coronavirus lockdowns and Ghana’s most vulnerable people Featured

It is just a week in to the partial lockdown of Accra and Kumasi and yet both cities are still bursting with activity, as though there were nothing at stake.

People have been asked to stay at home to reduce community spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), yet news bulletins show that some have converged at drinking spots, on street corners and in other public spaces despite the public order measures.

Market traders have brought out their wares to sell, observing few or no social distancing protocols. And some commercial vehicles are still carrying scores of people to the city centres despite the restrictions on movement by human beings and vehicles.

The security services now face the additional responsibility of enforcing rules and restrictions that should or easily could have been adhered to.

Ways and means

But can we blame these people? The news suggests that many of the people flouting the rules are petty traders, drivers, beggars and unskilled workers who live from hand to mouth each day.

These people, who are mostly homeless or squatting in unauthorised shelters, cannot afford to buy, preserve and stock food like the middle classes. They are the ones most badly affected by the lockdown. They have no choice other than to find “innovative” ways to feed themselves and their families.

In the initial stages of the disease outbreak in Ghana, the government said it couldn’t afford a lockdown on any scale because of vulnerable groups, including kayayei (market porters) and the homeless. This gave the impression that ministers were discussing ways to support such groups in the event of having to curtail public movement.

When the partial lockdown was announced, to become effective from 30 March, there was no mention of a plan for these groups of people. It became a counterproductive venture, defeating the very purpose of restricting movement, with many kayayei and homeless people fleeing the city centres for their home towns without any testing points and isolation measures for COVID-19 at their destination points.

Public outcry and media reports forced officials to announce the provision of food, shelter and daily stipends for the homeless and kayayei in the cities where movement has been restricted. But isn’t the action a little too late? Many of these people have fallen through the cracks; others have returned home. Why didn’t the government put any basic measures for the homeless in place before it announced a lockdown?

This question exposes one of Ghana’s major social problems; homelessness and the lack of adequate measures to bring the problem under control. Data on the urban homeless is scanty and even though they are a large number of Ghana’s domestic workforce, they are often overlooked or ignored. In this way, these people become indifferent to the rest of society. They are permanently hungry and lacking in basic amenities such as shelter, clean water and public toilets. They do not care about new buzzwords such as “social distancing” or “lockdown”.

News reports from the Odododiodoo area of central Accra showed that many such people were congregating in the streets and engaging in fistfights, oblivious to the dangers of not respecting the new advice on social distancing. Others were simply loitering. The few who stayed indoors were so crammed in that social distancing was virtually impossible.

Asked what was going on, one resident said, “We are hungry and don’t care. No disease can come here.”

No lessons learned?

This is the same as the attitude that many Italians adopted in the early days of their outbreak. They joked about it but the health-care situation in Italy has since become a disaster.

In fact, it is reported that in some places people shook hands despite the warnings by the World Health Organization, determined to signal to each other that there was nothing to be afraid of.

Others travelled outside the quarantined cities, ignoring intercity travel restrictions imposed on them by the central government.

Days later, Italy would record high numbers of new coronavirus infections and top the COVID-19 death toll charts.

The same pattern has afflicted some parts of the United States.

Multiple risks

I do not wish to make light of Ghana’s situation but many of us seem to be wilfully oblivious to the facts of COVID-19.

This is a disease with a high infection rate, spreading easily from contact with a single infected person through droplets sprayed through the air when a sufferer coughs or sneezes. The World Health Organization recommends frequent handwashing with soap under running water and maintaining a distance of at least two metres between people as two of the five key preventive measures in the fight against COVID-19.

These recommendations are being routinely disregarded, especially in our markets, where so many people still converge every day.

If we are to enjoy the full benefits of a lockdown, the government will need to enforce the recommendations to the letter, at the same time ensuring that the homeless and vulnerable are well catered for. If we abandon them to their fate and leave their survival to chance, we will be defeating the purpose of a lockdown and rather putting the lives of our rural folk at risk, as even more citizens will be forced to flee the quarantined areas in order to make ends meet.

We can learn a thing or two from other countries which have succeeded in getting the virus under control. For instance, in China, people were not even allowed to go out to find food: it was delivered to their doorstep, with little or no contact with the vendors. Within a few months, China has begun to bounce back from the worst effects of the disease.

We in Ghana may have neither the social structures nor the autocratic government to enforce strict adherence to directives in the way China has done, but we can achieve much with our limited resources.

Charity at home

Consider the Vietnamese example.

In early January, the Vietnamese government declared war on COVID-19 because it shares a border with China, where the disease originated.

Like Ghanaians, the Vietnamese had neither the public funds nor a robust health system to combat the virus should an epidemic emerge. They however used what they had – proper law enforcement – which ensured that citizens adhered to strict lockdown protocols.

The police and army were deployed to residential areas and reports showed that they were visible on almost every main street in the country. The government sponsored public information campaigns to educate citizens about the risk. A crowdfunding platform to encourage citizens to donate to help stop the spread was also launched.

Yet although similar measures have been adopted and promoted by the Government of Ghana, they have their own downsides for the country at large.

Local solutions

Some traders have complained about people not being allowed to come out to the markets to shop.

In other densely populated areas, the two-metre distancing rules are largely ignored. Members of the public are supposed to be staying at home but they venture out into town anyway to find food.

Law-enforcement officials cannot send them away if they claim to be patronising essential services.

Perhaps it is time to set up satellite markets in our communities, an improvised measure along the lines of what the Chinese government did a long time ago for people in China. This may involve completely shutting down certain markets but allowing vendors to open up in their own communities so that people will not have to commute to central markets to find food and other basics.

Let us take some of these simple measures. They will help us do what is needed to contain the disease but allow for the essentials of life to continue at all levels.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 07 April 2020 21:22

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