On April 19, President Nana Akufo-Addo (in office since January 2017) gave his seventh address to the nation since he first announced a lockdown on March 30 to curb the spread of the coronavirus in major cities like Accra and Kumasi. The president emphasized that restrictions on public gatherings are still in place. All schools are to remain closed, but “businesses and other workplaces can continue to operate observing staff management and workplace protocols, with the view to achieving social distancing and hygiene protocols.”
According to the Ghana Health Service, as of April 27, about 106,090 people have been tested for COVID-19. The country has 1,671 confirmed cases with 188 recoveries and 16 confirmed deaths.
Some of the government’s efforts to ease the burden of the pandemic on the population include the suspension of water bills from April to June, tax suspension for some health workers who provide essential services, suspending electricity bills for low-income Ghanaians and, more recently, distribution of food to people in need. The government has also supported the disinfection of public spaces like major streets and markets in cities such as Accra and Tamale. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education has worked with the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation to provide online, TV, and radio lessons for primary, junior and senior high schools in the country.
Although these efforts seem commendable, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that economically marginalized people are feeling the effects of the pandemic the most; from the threats to their livelihoods, housing challenges, struggles to social distance, access to basic amenities, and access to credible information about the virus, among others.
A couple of weeks ago, more than 1,000 residents in Old Fadama, a suburb of Accra, were rendered homeless following a demolition exercise carried out by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly. Demolishing the homes of poor residents while the city of Accra was under lockdown tells us all we need to know about how the government is addressing the needs of working class people.
The destruction of the homes of some residents of Old Fadama means that many including children have had to sleep in the open and have been subjected to the vagaries of the cold harmattan weather, mosquito bites, etc. This situation puts these residents at risk of contracting the virus, as they have little to no way of observing social distancing rules, access to running water and access to other resources to practice basic hygiene. Although the Accra Mayor, Mohammed Adjei Sowah, said that displaced people will be provided with temporary housing, many are still sleeping in the streets.
Meanwhile, there has been growing stigma toward COVID-19 patients in the country. This stigma can be attributed to inadequate education about the virus. Although citizen-led groups and opinion leaders have taken it upon themselves to produce educational content in some indigenous languages, many Ghanaian languages have yet to be covered especially in mainstream media campaigns.
In addition, people with disabilities have been largely excluded from media campaigns about the virus. In a statement to Sanatu Zambang Studios (a media organization in Tamale), the Northern Regional Association of the Deaf (NRAD) lamented the lack of education on the virus for deaf people, and called on media organizations to provide education on the coronavirus in sign language.
It seems that the abundance of fake news stories also drowns some efforts to provide accurate information about the virus. The stigma towards people who test positive for COVID-19 means that many who fear they may have it shy away from testing and treatment. In early April, there were reports that a patient ran away from quarantine in the Tamale Teaching Hospital. On April 16, it was reported that another person who tested positive for the virus in Wa in the Upper West Region also ran away. Both patients were foreign nationals. As we look for ways to address stigma, it is imperative for us to consider how when coupled with xenophobia it results in situations where patients would rather run away than receive treatment.
Furthermore, the media should re-examine the role it plays in facilitating the stigma of COVID-19 patients by being more ethical in reporting these stories. Some media organizations have shown the faces of people who have recovered from the virus, inadvertently directing stigma to these people and their families. Others have mentioned the names of patients and their families in broadcasts. Ghana’s National Media Commission should work actively to address these issues and should put in place measures to sanction media organizations that expose patients and recovered patients to harm in this way.
At the same time, the media faces the immense challenge of fake news, which is being shared on WhatsApp and other social media platforms via friend and family networks, social group chats, and religious networks, among others. Many of these fake news stories, which are usually packaged via videos, audios and texts, are produced from unverified sources. Some are locally produced or imported conspiracy theories about the virus that are unfounded. The spread of disinformation is facilitated easily by many people’s inability to distinguish credible information from fake news, due to a deep lack of media literacy in our communities. Government efforts to curb this spate of disinformation have only gone as far as debunking untruths about the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country.
In the last few weeks, the state has involved the police and military to ensure that people in the country follow the rules about quarantine, social distancing and other directives regarding the lockdown in some major cities. That most of these police and military personnel walk around with firearms to “safeguard” these directives means that our communities have been reconfigured as war zones, and violence is used to confront civilians who break these protocols.
The involvement of the military and police in other African countries such as South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria has resulted in catastrophic consequences. Beyond the physical abuse of civilians, it was reported on April 6 that one such encounter resulted in the death of a man in Ashaiman, Accra.
Historically, policing has been a tool utilized by the colonizer to enact violence on the colonized. Furthermore, having lived through a series of military coups d’état, coupled with curfews where the rights of civilians have been abused with impunity, we need to re-examine the way that we use these law enforcement institutions to fight the virus. According to criminology scholar Justice Tankebe, policing in many traditional Ghanaian societies “was a collective responsibility of all individuals” not the vesting of power in institutions and individuals to enact violence on the citizenry. Given the violent history and nature of the military and the police, a more humane approach to addressing violations of COVID-19 protocols would be more effective.
At a very critical time when the government should be exploring avenues to make things easier for the most marginalized in our society through various social support measures, the state has participated in worsening the lives and living conditions of many of these residents.
There is one bright spot: the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (NMIMR) and the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) at the University of Ghana announced on April 11 that the research institutes had successfully sequenced genomes of COVID-19. According to Professor Abraham Anang, the director of the NMIMR, this genome sequencing “will strengthen surveillance for tracking mutations of the virus and aid in the tracing of the sources of community infections in people with no known contact with confirmed cases.” The scientists have since shared their work with other scientists around the world through an open access platform. A few days ago, the Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research developed rapid diagnostic testing kits, which would help facilitate and decentralize coronavirus testing across the country.