Corona in Ghana: a virus’ impact on society and academic life

Samuel Aniegye Ntewusu

This is a guest blog written by Samuel Aniegye Ntewusu, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon, Accra. He is also a fellow member of the ASCL Community and a former visiting fellow. In 2016-2017, Ntewusu was a Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (KNAW) Visiting Professor.

In the 1980s the popular Nigerian musician Ras Kimono released his ‘Under Pressure’ musical album, which launched him into international stardom. The news of the outbreak of Covid-19 in China in the later part of 2019 was something that many individuals and countries felt was the problem of and for China. In a matter of months, Covid-19 has spread to many parts of the world, with fatalities. The rapid spread and the fatalities involved remind one of Ras Kimono’s concluding words in his song: Under Pressure, we wail under pressure, under pressure, everybody under pressure, under pressure black and white under pressure. Indeed, the entire world is under pressure from the corona virus.

How it started
In Ghana, the Ministry of Health had earlier issued an alert and guidance in January 2020 to all sixteen regions in the country about the outbreak of the Coronavirus in China. Attempts were made to ensure that Covid-19 would not enter Ghana. So the international airport in Accra was provided with logistics to ensure enhanced screening procedure for passengers returning from China.
In February, the exercise was extended to inbound flights and all entry boarder points in the country. Despite the measures, on Thursday March 12th Ghana confirmed its first two cases of Covid-19. The two cases where both imported. A few days later, the number of imported cases had increased to 11 and as at 26th March the number stands at 132, with three deaths. Contact tracking/tracing indicates that several hundreds of people have had contacts with the 24 diagnosed cases. The burden of the epidemic so far is within the Greater Accra region, with some cases reported in Kumasi and Tarkwa.

Trying to reach students
The outbreak in Ghana has triggered a lot of things that are of concern and interest. Politically, the President did address the nation twice - announcing measures that could help improve the situation, which include social distancing, closing down of educational institutions, fumigation of some markets in the cities, among other things. In the issue of educational institutions, some of the Senior High Schools have resorted to online teaching, where lessons are sent to their students through Youtube and other forms of digital communication. The University of Ghana has also activated its virtual learning programme, intended to reach students with the planned academic programme. The leadership of the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) however raised a few issues that they felt might affect the e-learning measures. The issue of non-availability of internet services in some parts of the country and the fact that some of the students do not have access to laptops, as well as the fact that some students have some disabilities that may make it difficult for them to be able to use that system. Management is in dialogue with stakeholders to find a way out and ensure the running of the various academic programmes without interruption. As a researcher, the unexpected turn of events has affected work in so many ways. I cannot meet my graduate students as frequently as possible, but we have resorted to phone calls and emails to deal with their projects. Normally, at times one needs to have a one on one talk with the student so that both operate on the same wave length; Corona has made this almost impossible. The same problem applies to papers that are due for submission to journals.

Few testing centres
The Tema General Hospital and the Ridge Hospital have been designated to handle issues related to the disease, even though most regional and district hospitals have also been encouraged to be on the alert and to handle cases of such nature. A 50-bed unit is to be constructed in Korle-Bu to also specifically handle issues of Covid-19.
Useful as the interventions might be, there are a few issues that are also of critical concern. The testing centres so far are very limited in Ghana: one in Accra and the other in Kumasi. The limited nature of the testing centres compelled the Ghana Association of Medical Laboratory Scientists to advice the government to resource the teaching hospitals to test suspected cases of Covd-19, rather than focusing on only the two centres. Since testing is a fundamental ingredient to addressing the spread of the virus, this call is nothing but legitimate.  

Issuing National Identification Cards
In the meantime, there has so far been one law-suit arising in connection with the outbreak and protocols surrounding the handling of Covid-19. In the wake of the crisis, the National Identification Authority (NIA) was undertaking the registration and issuance of National Identification Cards. The National Identification Card, popularly called the Ghana Card, is issued to Ghanaians and foreign nationals as proof of identity, citizenship and residential status of the holder. There was public outcry regarding the exercise. Civil society and the Ghana Medical Association condemned the Authority for going ahead to register people in spite of the President’s directive banning public gathering. The exercise had the potential to spread the disease due to the high number of people that will assemble to get their cards. Such gatherings could compromise the attempts made by the government to contain the outbreak. The NIA however gave a rebuttal to the claims by the public indicating that they had adhered to the principles of distancing and equipped their personnel with hand sanitizers, water bowls, liquid soap and hand towels. Two Ghanaian citizens were not satisfied with NIA’s response and took the matter to court. A day after the suit, the National Identification Authority issued a statement suspending the exercise.

Church on social media
At a social and economic level, the virus seems to have affected the country in different ways. For example, churches and mosques seem to be on the quiet in response to the president’s directive for services to be put on hold. Nonetheless, some churches do have their services through social media. On Sunday many linked up to the various sites created by the churches. All the processes involved in Sunday worship were followed. Some churches had mobile codes through which ‘collections’ and tithes etc could be paid. Some families have reported improved relations in the house.
Some sectors such as banking, the creative arts, tourism, restaurants and many more seem to be severely affected. Banks have given out loans and overdrafts to operators of hotels, restaurants, exporters and importers. Servicing the loans will become a problem, due to low patronage and the ban on international travels by some countries. In the meantime, chemical and pharmacy shops seem to be making some good business as people rush to stockpile medical supplies, including malaria tablets, Vitamin C, paracetamol, blood tonic etc.

Hand sanitizers and gin
So far, traders in hand sanitizers (mistakenly called ‘Hands of Tiger’ and ‘Hans Sloderdijk’ by some) and facial and nose masks are making a ‘kill’ out of the situation. The 120 milliliter bottle of hand sanitizer which used to be sold at Ghc 3 (equivalent of about 0.16 eurocents) is now sold at Ghc 10 (about 1,58 euro), a more than 300% price increase; even so one cannot even get some to buy. One surprising thing though, is the way prices of foodstuffs seem to be relatively stable, even though the fear of a possible shutdown has triggered some ‘panic’ buying in some instances. The local gin Akpeteshie has regained its respectability and essence in society. There are several conspiracies regarding the control of the virus, and one dominant is the ability of the local gin to kill the virus within minutes. So far the shortage of hand sanitizers seems to have compelled many to use Akpeteshie as a substitute. ‘Even when the virus is not killed with a hand wash with Akepteshie, one could still chase it down the throat with some shots to ensure a total conquest’, says an informant at a bar.
With no cure in sight, some women have taken the war against the virus to the market. Offering a one-time hand wash for the price of fifty pesewas - half a ced (about 0.8 eurocents). I have the greatest respect for the women. With Ghanaians always mingling, shaking and touching, the price of the services offered by the women can never be quantified. As far as the fight against Covid-19 is concerned, it is these women that deserve our commendation.

Step up the game
With the projections made regarding the number of possible infections due to the contacts that people have had with those infected, government needs to step up the game by ensuring that there are enough test kits throughout the country, and not just in Accra and Kumasi. There is also the need for particular facilities to be converted to emergency centres. Above all, there is the need for real public education. So far, it appears it is just the Radio/FM stations and Whats-Up platforms that have taken over the process of informing or misinforming the public about the state of affairs. Whereas the humor aspects on social media seem to be very useful in calming down nerves, the possibility of passing on wrong information could also be very high. Accuracy and speed is what is needed at this time of the war against the virus.

This post has been written for the ASCL Africanist Blog. Would you like to stay updated on new blog posts? Subscribe here! Would you like to comment? Please do! The ASCL reserves the right to edit, shorten or reject submitted comments.

Also read the other blog posts dealing with the impact of corona in Africa on the ASCL Africanist Blog.
Top photo: Amphitheater, University of Ghana, Legon, Accra. Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Masssly / CC BY-SA.
Photo left: Women providing hand washing services for fifty pesewas (source: social media.)
Photo right: An individual purported to have built an apartment on top of a tree to get away from the virus (source: social media).



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