Bernard Sarpong & Daniel Taylor’s thoughts … Lifting of the partial lockdown: a necessary evil?

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The Covid-19 pandemic is by far the most widespread disease outbreak in the twenty-first century. Medical scientists across the globe are relentlessly conducting researches to discover more information on the epidemiology of this disease and possibly come up with a vaccine. Meanwhile, a number of response measures have been adopted by various governments depending on country specific differences and capacity to contain the spread of the virus to eradicate it completely within the shortest possible time.

In Ghana, the President of the Republic instituted initial measures on international travels and border movements to avoid further importation of the disease. However, these immediate measures did not suffice to contain the spread as several other individuals had come into contact with travelers who came into the country with the infection. This provided the impetus for the imposition of a partial lockdown order on Greater Accra Metropolitan Area and Kasoa, and the Greater Kumasi Metropolitan Area and its environs, from Monday, March 30 to Monday, April, 20.

The primary objective of this order was to contain the spread of the virus, facilitate contact tracing efforts and scale-up testing of individual samples following mandatory quarantining of travellers, the contact tracing exercise and routine surveillance whilst improving the capacity to treat and carter for infected persons.

The President, noting the consequences of the lockdown order on these Metropolises, put in place stimulus packages to alleviate the myriads of economic constraints thereof. Chief among them was the creation of the GH¢1.2 billion Coronavirus Alleviation Programme to support households and businesses. The quantum of resources expended during this lockdown period was colossal such that any further extension may have far-reaching consequences on the Ghanaian economy.

Sign saying Stay Home

Thus, on April 19, President Nana Akufo-Addo lifted the lockdown order to allow economic activities to continue. However, the lifting of this partial lockdown order was met with mixed hysteria from the citizenry. Some social commentators argued that the President’s decision was in bad taste as they believe that it will spur on the spread of the virus.

Other economic analysts also contend that, extension of this lockdown may not auger well for the economy in the immediate future. We sought to painstakingly analyze the associated epidemiological and socio-economic implications of the decision to validate or otherwise the rationale for navigating this path.

Rationale for lifting the partial lockdown

The President premised his lifting of the partial lockdown on the following;

  1. The ability of Ghana Health Service to undertake aggressive contact tracing of infected persons.
  2. The enhancement of our capacity to test.
  3. The expansion in the number of treatment and isolation centres.
  4. Our better understanding of the dynamism of the virus.
  5. The ramping up of our domestic capacity to produce our own personal protective equipment, sanitizers and medicines.
  6. The modest successes chalked at containing the spread of the virus in Accra and Kumasi.
  7. The severe impact on the poor and vulnerable

Is the lifting of the Partial Lockdown Order justified?

At the government level, the economic implications of extending the lockdown are far-reaching. Overwhelming expenditures must be incurred on daily basis to provide food and other packages to the poor, vulnerable and businesses affected by the lockdown. Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) support extended to cover majority of the poorest in the affected areas. These constitute a major distortion in the government’s planned expenditures for the fiscal year.

President Akufo-Addo

Unfortunately, government revenue sources have also been depleted. Tax reliefs to businesses, waiver of demurrages and rent charges on freight at seaports are huge losses to the government. GH¢280 million of the Covid-19 Alleviation fund has already been used to provide food for the vulnerable and free water for all Ghanaians for three (3) months. GH¢323 million was used to motivate frontline health workers and GH¢600 million has been earmarked to support micro, small and medium-scale businesses.

Further, the government is fully absorbing electricity bills for one million active lifeline customers and is providing 50% subsidy for three months for all others customers, using their March 2020 bill as their benchmark. In monetary terms, this is equivalent to GH¢1.02 billion. Other government parastatals, agencies and faith-based organisations have also supported over four hundred and seventy thousand (470,000) vulnerable families with cooked food packs in the affected districts of Accra and Kumasi.

A million dollar question is; till when can the government sustain these social intervention programmes without compromising on the survival of current and future generation? It is public knowledge that parliament has already started deliberations to use a portion of the Heritage Fund to mitigate the consequences of Covid-19. Thus, we opine that it would be better for the government to cut losses now rather than depleting the state’s coffers.

At the business level, private sector demand has already shrunk following the proliferation of the virus to many countries and travel bans and other border restrictions being imposed by the President of Ghana. Business folks who travel to Togo, Nigeria and China in particular for consumer goods have been rendered redundant.

Also, informal sector workers who live from hand to mouth are battling for survival during this lockdown period. Banks were forced to close many branches due to low volumes of financial transactions. Staffs were asked to proceed on mandatory leave with or without pay.

As Prof. Peter Quartey, Director of ISSER writes, current income cannot be guaranteed beyond three months and individuals borrowing to expand or start any new businesses other than food chain and other essential consumer goods business may be in for a tough time. These would constitute unprecedented reductions in aggregate economic activities which could cripple the economy if the lockdown had been extended.

Professor Peter Quartey

At the household level, sustenance may not be guaranteed beyond a number of weeks as families may not have stocked enough to cater for extended lockdown. Suffice to add that, amidst the enormous expenditures incurred by the government on food, a section of the poor in these affected areas of the lockdown complained of inaccessibility of the cooked food packs which were distributed.

On the other hand, producers of basic essentials are deterred from producing on large scale for fear of low market demand. The likely repercussion is a rise in household expenditures beyond sustainable levels due to high prices resulting from potential shortage of essential consumer goods.

Another concern during the lockdown period was infrequent flow of water in some communities. This rendered the use of public places of convenience unusable and many resorted to “easing” themselves in the open. Coupled with congestion in most homes, the health system faces the risk of outbreak of sanitation-related diseases such as Cholera which killed over four hundred (400) Ghanaians in 2014. These would be a threat to survival in the immediate future if the lockdown is extended.

Those against the lifting of the partial lockdown argue of a possible surge in the spread of the virus and the country’s lack of readiness to contain a mass-outbreak. However, evidence shows that the Government of Ghana has been phenomenal in dealing with Covid-19 related issues, particularly the rapidity with which tests were conducted.

Test results of some sixty eighty thousand (68,000) persons revealed that only 1.5% (1,042) were positive carriers of the virus as at April 19 when the President addressed the nation with ninety-nine (99) of them having fully discovered. The remaining have been isolated and are responding to treatment either in their homes or in treatment facilities.

Majority of persons infected in Ghana have mild to no symptoms at all, whilst a very small number have required hospital treatment, out of which nine (9) persons, with underlying ailments, have died. These suggest that Ghana’s situation is not alarming and thus if current positive cases are properly managed, there would be no need to hold the country to a lockdown ransom. We share in the dreaded fear that the contact tracing and mass testing carried out during the 3 weeks of the partial lockdown might not have captured all infected persons.

This assertion is partly supported by the 508 new cases recorded following the lifting of the restrictions on movement. Nevertheless, the argument for extended lockdown for enhanced contact tracing could be flawed on grounds that it is almost impossible to finish the contact tracing exercise given our population size, thus attempting to do so would be tantamount to stagnating economic activities.

Scientists at University of Ghana have successfully sequenced genomes of the virus, obtaining important information about the genetic composition of viral strains in 15 of the confirmed cases in Ghana. This 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. Government of Ghana has expanded network of Covid-19 treatment centers, with the Ga-East and Bank of Ghana Hospitals being one hundred percent (100%) dedicated to the fight.

Additionally, separate treatment centres have been set aside at the University of Ghana Medical School Hospital, Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital, Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, Kumasi South Hospital and other designated Regional and District Hospitals.

On our capacity to test, expanded teams have been dedicated at Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research, the Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research, National Public Health Reference Laboratory and other centres across the country to help ensure that we have a minimum situation of one testing centre per region. Drones are being used in recent times to transport samples to laboratory centres. All these demonstrate our growing understanding of the dynamism of the virus, enhanced capacity and ability to test as well as expansion in the number of treatment and isolation centres.

Though the congested scenes at our market places and lorry stations paint a horrible picture of how contagious and debilitating a sudden outbreak will be, fortunately, the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, Regional Coordinating Councils and Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies are helping to enforce the social distancing order in the markets by expanding the policy of alternate-days-for-alternative-products.

The Ministry of Transport in collaboration with Ghana Private Road Transport Union (GPRTU) have charged operators of public transport, including buses, “trotros” and taxis to continue to run with a minimum number of passengers as they have done over the past weeks. Further, domestic production of personal protective equipment such as hand sanitizers and face masks has scaled-up and most Regional Coordinating Councils are beginning to enforce the President’s directive of compulsory wearing of face masks in public.

Conclusion

Officials of both World Health Organization (WHO) and Africa Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDCP) unanimously opined that imposing lockdowns in African countries where people live from hand to mouth will be a huge challenge. We believe that the novelty of this Coronavirus is a learning curve which calls for flexible response actions as and when the situation demands. The lifting of the restriction on movement imposed on the affected areas was necessary to bring economic relief to the government, the poor and vulnerable in society.

Besides, Ghana has successfully implemented policies to meet WHO’s six conditions for gradual lifting of Covid-19-related restrictions thus, lifting the lockdown order is backed by data and science. We also believe that enforcement of the mandatory wearing of face masks at public places and continuous sensitization of the citizenry on personal hygiene will suffice to curb the torment of Covid-19.

Whiles the government continues to monitor the situation and adapt its response action when the need arises, our biggest test as a nation now is self-discipline as citizens to heed to the enhanced personal protective protocols to guarantee our navigation through this storm soonest.

About the Authors:  

Bernard SARPONG is young Economist with research focus on Development, Financial and Monetary policies for inclusive growth in Emerging and Frontier Economies. He holds both Master of Philosophy and Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Ghana. He is currently a Fixed Income and Money Market Dealer at Republic Bank Ghana Ltd. Email: [email protected], LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bernard-sarpong-61a332146

Daniel TAYLOR is a Chartered Accountant with years of treasury experience in the banking sector. He holds certification from The Financial Markets Association (ACI) and Bachelor of Commerce Degree from University of Cape Coast. He is currently a final year Master student in International Audit, Economics and Finance at UCA in France. Email: [email protected]LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daniel-taylor-ca-aci-bcom-0b62a41a0

 

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