The novel coronavirus is a quiet storm decimating economies globally and testing the psyches of many a nation. The tough pill of a lockdown is the latest stage on our road to recovery, and businesses in every crevice are taking a hit. A chunk will not recover.
The next few months are going to be extremely difficult for a lot of Ghanaians, especially the most vulnerable in our society. But if there is one silver lining in the darkest cloud in Ghana since our junta days, it is that we are demonstrating an understanding of what a functioning society looks like when pushed to the wall.
In fiction, a crisis like the novel coronavirus pandemic brings out the worst in people. Cynics revel in how man’s savagery to fellow man and the erosion of empathy manifests in trying dystopias. This does happen in real life, like how over 70 mostly-homeless head porters from Accra were treated as an anathema by the Ejisu Municipal Chief Executive as they journeyed to seek refuge in Northern Ghana.
Ghana hasn’t descended into bedlam. We are not even fighting over toilet paper like our friends across the Atlantic. Accra is surreally orderly right now. But our response to the pandemic is only the mask being worn by most damning aspects of our society. Our developing strategy to contain the novel coronavirus plays like a magnifying glass passing over every strand of our socio-political being.
The easiest scab to pick at is how the State goes about sensitisation and communication from the top of society to the very bottom. The fact that there is an active mobilisation to translate coronavirus awareness messages into as many languages as possible is an admission that we have alienated a majority of our population from governance and policy for far too long.
If we are concerned the coronavirus messages are not getting across to less educated and marginalised, even with the government’s attempts to translate major press conferences into some local languages, how have we been expecting Parliamentary proceedings, State of the Nation Addresses, new laws, climate change awareness etc to get across to the man with education up to class three?
The aforementioned head porters are only now being considered for some coronavirus awareness despite the alarm bells having been sounded months prior. How then have they been staving off cholera and typhoid? How do they engage with the nuance of policy that concerns them? How do they find channels that offer reprieve when face with abuses of various kinds.
The kayaye are but one example of extreme poverty being hoisted up alongside the Ghana flag by the pandemic. And more likely than not, they are left to passively scamper for scraps of information from the State.
Maybe if we had been engaging with every citizen with equitable precision, we wouldn’t have been in a situation where there was a terrifying deficit in the healthcare sector with a pandemic huffing and puffing at the door. God forbid we get to the point where hospitals manned by a vanguard of fatigued health personnel are overrun by cases. There will be blood on successive government’s hands, and critics of the State’s attitude towards uncompleted health care projects will position index fingers under teary eyes saying “we told you so.”
Even in these trying times some of our leaders remain tone-deaf; like the Health Minister saying a couple of floors in the woefully-underutilised Bank of Ghana hospital would be reserved for VIPs who contract the virus. I waited for the “April Fools” to punctuate the announcement. It never came. The Bank of Ghana and the government later came out to do some damage control by saying the facility will be open for the general public.
Before this, there was the Speaker of Parliament remarking about how we now see the need for a more spacious Parliament chamber for MPs as the legislature moved to enforce social distancing. But what about more spacious public transport or more spacious hospital wards or more spacious classrooms or more spacious dormitories in secondary schools Mr. Speaker?
The state has been stabbing us in the back and its response to the pandemic is as close as we will get to a guilty plea. A spacious trotro shouldn’t come about as the reaction to a world-changing pandemic. It should be an outcome of policy informed by common sense. A well-ventilated ride home should be the barest minimum for the trader who travels home after hustling an honest living.
Did we need a pandemic to force us to clean and disinfect our markets; the places most Ghanaians buy their foods for consumption but also double as a hub for typhoid, cholera and the like. Many people winced at the pictures from the admittedly horrid Chinese wet markets when the epidemic broke out but our own filthy markets are no better.
Depending on how bad this lockdown gets, we may actually see the realisation of President Nana Akufo-Addo’s promise to make Accra the cleanest in Africa, if only for a short while. State action to provide Veronica buckets, educate the masses and disinfect markets proves it understands that true hygiene goes beyond regular rubbish collection and a national sanitation day. It is about searing a new culture into our DNA and the State must be in the driving seat. All those who whinge about the need for attitudinal change from citizens instead of action from the government (myself included most of the time) are finally seeing what could be more effective.
“We know how to bring the economy back to life. What we do not know is how to bring people back to life”
The President’s quote heard round the world was met with adulation from some international observers. But it really should be met with scorn in Ghana. It exposed what most of us already know; that he’s largely been operating with a crippling short-term election mentality before now. What was it he put his presidency on the line for again? It has something to do with why rivers look like hot chocolate and Ghana may be importing water in future.
The coronavirus is the boogeyman we see in front of us. But equally harrowing codas await Ghana if the State cannot summon the levels of urgency we see now for other pressing matters. Mindful of the next generation you say, Mr President? We’ll be needing much more than Free SHS as evidence of that and I pray he seizes whatever opportunity is afforded him by the pandemic to turn a new leaf. The fundamentals will look ugly by the end of 2020 and what else will the government have to hold on then?
The coronavirus pandemic will expose many more issues that require a drastic rethink; some more pressing than others depending on your context. But there is no doubt anything will change unless we acknowledge our atrocious levels of inequality and start to address same. Most of the world seems to be in agreement on this.
I went on a photography run through some parts of Accra and aside from a few traders there was nothing. You have to walk through a deserted Kantamanto, normally a cacophony of commerce and trade, to appreciate the ghastly shadow the virus has cast. How will all these traders outside the food chain survive? Never mind the homeless kayaye, how about the Uber driver or seamstress with a family to feed or members of Ghana’s budding gig economy.
Do we now have to start having discussions about a universal basic income in Ghana? Do we move to create a minimum financial threshold for citizens? I wouldn’t know because it’s not anything I bothered to read about until this virus hit. But now would be the best time for the arguments to begin.
The pandemic has held up a mirror to society and the surprise was not that we looked scared and disfigured but that we understood how to cover most of the blemishes. It didn’t take a fancy date with the west but because the nation was faced with a level of mortality never before seen. Like history’s most devastating tragedies, this is an enemy that is genuinely no respecter of persons. To borrow a quote from The Terminator: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.”
I hope this is the most devastating social shock in my lifetime and I hope we survive it. But most importantly, I hope we learn our lessons from it.
The writer, Delali Adogla, works with Citi TV/Citi TM and citinewsroom.com
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