Musings on the emergence of a virus in Wuhan, China and concerns of its spread at US borders by tourists and Americans returning mainly from China were the earliest pointers in the news on the roots of Ghana’s knowledge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, it looked like a distant reality for the African and Ghanaian context. As the virus made inroads into Europe and other continents and countries within them, the reality of the potential challenges of this health problem became apparent. Initial concerns by Ghanaians and the government were on how to evacuate first and foremost Ghanaian students and citizens caught up in China.
This was the situation Ghana was grappling with and all this was to change on 12 March, when Ghana recorded its first two cases; immediately awakening the consciousness of the government and people that the country was in for a battle to deal with this global problem of a public health emergency. From this point the rest has been history. The country now has over nine thousand (9,462) confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of June 7, 2020 with forty-four (44) deaths and over three thousand (3,547) recoveries, and these estimates change on a daily basis. There have been major attempts to contain and manage the situation while thinking out and employing many other strategies to cope with the pandemic going forward.
How is Ghana facing the emergency?
Once the COVID-19 registered its first two cases in Ghana the government knew a major health issue had befallen the nation. The necessary steps and consultations were initiated to marshal a concerted effort in dealing with the global health issue on hand.
In taking the most serious steps in the face of the pandemic, government appealed to the consciousness of the people of Ghana to arouse their sensitivity to and encourage precautions in the face of the health emergency. It also acted by closing the borders of the country and charging the country’s health sector with the frantic effort of finding effective short-term and long-term approaches to contain the situation. While this was going on the atmosphere was charged, tense and beset with fierce debates and counter-debates by political groupings, civil society and government on the way forward. The discussion centred on the most serious issues to tackle first and which issues needed to be dealt with in general. It has to be said that in all of this government and its officials, heroic health-care workers, the efficient teams of contact tracers and testers, scientists, professional security personnel, members of the media and government ministers took the brunt of the pressure and criticism whenever immediate strategies were seen to be faltering initially, while hoping the challenge would not be over politicised along party lines since the pandemic was beyond all shades of opinion. In all of this there was an intense media briefing session by government, led and organized by the Ministry of Information to keep the nation informed with all necessary information regarding the pandemic and also to disseminate relevant information regarding the disease.
Accra’s strategies for coping with the pandemic
Ghana has over the past eleven weeks tried to chart its own efforts aimed at containing the pandemic. There has been an attempt to limit and stop importation of the virus, contain the spread of the virus, provide adequate care for the sick, limit the impact of the virus on social and economic life, and to experience an opportunity afforded by the emergency to expand domestic capability and deepen self-reliance in remedies to deal with the situation.
To operationalise these objectives in practical terms, government decided to manage and implement crowd limitation. Realizing that large crowds were a fertile way to exponentially spread the virus, the president of Ghana, responding under the Imposition of Restrictions Act, placed a ban on public gatherings and closed down all schools and universities. On 21 March, it also closed all of its borders, land, air and sea. Subsequently, on 27 March, restrictions were placed on the movement of persons in the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area, Tema, Kasoa, and the Greater Kumasi Metropolitan Area and contiguous districts, for a period of three weeks. Areas outside these territories and regions were spared these measures though they had to be cautious and implement all other measures to keep safe.
In view of the obvious economic difficulties that came with these tough measures, the president and government announced far-reaching relief to ease the economic and social burden on households and businesses. These included subsidies on utilities for all, tax relief and financial packages for businesses, and incentives for frontline health workers. To enhance the resource mobilisation drive, given the cost implications associated with the management of the disease, government has set up the COVID-19 Trust Fund to which over 50 million Ghana cedis have been contributed by organizations, groups and individuals. Additionally, the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospitals, front-line workers, the vulnerable in society has been forthcoming and still ongoing.
Currently, there is in place a phased and limited approach to easing restrictive strategies as a way of getting the country back to normalcy in these COVID-19 times. According to the president, consensus has emerged from consultations with stakeholders in the country that Ghana should embark on a strategic, controlled, progressive, safe easing of restrictions to get lives and the economy back to normal while still working at containing the pandemic and monitoring case fluctuations.
The president has directed that with effect from Friday 5 June, a stage-one abridged format for religious services can commence. Twenty-five percent attendance, with a maximum number of one hundred congregants can worship at a time in church or at the mosque, with a mandatory one-meter rule of social distancing. In addition, there is to be a mandatory wearing of masks for all persons at all times in churches and mosques, a register of names and contact details of all worshippers and handwashing facilities and sanitisers must be provided, with a maximum duration of one hour for each service. Religious institutions that are desirous of opening their premises to their members must disinfect, fumigate and put in place the requisite logistics needed to guarantee safe opening and operation. They must work with the designated regulatory bodies and undertake test runs of the protocols outlined by the country thus far.
Again, the president and government, in consultations with teacher unions, have decided from Monday, 15 June, to re-open schools and universities to allow for final-year junior high, senior high and university students to resume classes ahead of holding their respective final examinations. This extends to final-year students of all other training institutes managed by other ministries and private entities in Ghana. Each student, teacher, and non-teaching staff member will be provided with re-usable face masks by the Ministry of Education. All other educational facilities, private and public, for non-final year students, will remain closed.
Private burials, with a maximum of one hundred persons, can continue to be performed. Restaurants providing seated services can operate under appropriate social distancing arrangements and hygiene protocols. Individual, non-contact sports can go ahead. Conferences, workshops, weddings, and political activities, except rallies, can take place, but with limited attendance not exceeding one hundred persons, with the appropriate social distancing and hygiene protocols.
Marketplaces, workplaces, public transport, constitutional and statutory bodies, must conduct their activities in accordance with social distancing and the necessary hygiene and safety protocols.
Air, land and sea borders remain closed until further notice. However, given that Ghanaian residents are stranded abroad, special dispensation is to be given for their evacuation back to Ghana, where they will be subjected to the mandatory quarantine and safety protocols.
There have certainly been some difficult impacts from the measures employed to defeat the virus in the social, religious, cultural and economic lives of Ghana. Ghanaians have borne with these strategies for the most part, even though with some challenges in parts of the country. The introduction of the phased opening up of Ghana means that each and every person must continue to remain vigilant and respect protocols that have become part and parcel of daily routines over the last three months: Ghanaians must adhere to enhanced personal hygiene and social distancing protocols, wash hands with soap under running water, refrain from shaking hands, and wear masks whenever they leave their homes. We may have to manage and live with COVID-19 for a while yet and must always be conscious of that in the days ahead.