What COVID-19 means for today, tomorrow and beyond

You have all heard huge amounts about COVID-19 already, but I can’t duck making some comments on Covid-19 in Ghana, after which I will turn to some broader issues raised by the pandemic.

Ghana’s Covid-19 state of play

How has Ghana done so far, and what are the issues and challenges now?

  • Grasping the severity of the challenge is difficult. Covid-19 has been doubling cases in affected countries worldwide every 3 days (exponential spread) unless very actively combatted. Hence any omissions in our battle against it (“big men” allowed to avoid testing or quarantine, foreign arrivals sneaking through unregulated land borders, unreported cases that go on to spread the virus, not taking lockdown seriously) will mean we may be overrun very quickly. Given Covid-19’s rapid potential spread pattern, undealt with, just one case could lead to more than a million cases in just two months! Relentless commitment to total warfare against the virus is vital.
  • Pro-active leadership is essential in these uncharted waters. Given the novel challenges raised by Covid-19, Ghana’s government has made commendable progress. However, there is much needed that government has not got the capacity to do. Other institutions must show leadership too, particularly our sleeping giants, the church and mosque networks. These have very relevant assets and the necessary strong local connections and knowledge. They should go beyond praying, and act together and at scale to support the millions of poor Ghanaians for whom lockdown means zero income. There are great examples of churches and mosques acting to help, which I commend, but far more is needed, including more working together to ensure all needs are covered.  Regarding other institutions, I have been encouraged to see our professional built environment institutions recently take the initiative to provide unified public advice and expertise for tackling the crisis.  But we need all to mobilise, speak out,  and share their knowledge and resources, if Ghana is to succeed in this war against Covid-19.  Physical distancing must be accompanied by total social solidarity.
  • We must celebrate and support our Heroes: their work will decisively affect the outcome. Our medical staff are working long hours and taking personal risks for the good of their patients and society: there can be no physical distancing for them. They deserve appropriate protective equipment and other support right now. And our Covid-19 testing and contact tracking services are performing a complex and difficult job well. They are essential to avoiding a catastrophically fast spread of the virus. Again, no resource should be spared to support them.
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And what broader lessons we can draw from all this? I will focus on those for two crucial trade-offs that have a huge impact on our long-term success as a society.

Now or Later?

The first is time preference – for example our willingness to trace losses now for future gains. This is of course the essence of lockdown.  Time preference is an economist’s phrase to describe the well-known view that a bird in hand is worth two (or more) in the bush. Gains and losses now tend to influence us far more than future gains and losses   This issue is at the heart of our difficulties in making tough choices on long term issues like climate change. However, the short time horizon for likely losses from corona virus, and the ability in a social media age to see those negative impacts happening elsewhere, so making them more tangible, has meant many countries, including Ghana, have taken actions such as lockdown that would have seemed inconceivable just a few months ago.

Another description of time preference that is unhealthily skewed towards the present is short-termism. Whatever one calls it, this problem is severe in Ghana.

One reason is the massive long-term depreciation of the cedi (over 30,000 fold against the pound since Ghana’s independence, when two old cedis were worth a pound, whereas it is now 70,000 old cedis to the pound – the rebasing to Ghana cedis did not change the real value of the currency). Why invest for the long term inside Ghana, when any cedis you generate will be able to buy so much less on global markets in a few years’ time? Rather, consume now or invest abroad, and that’s what we have been doing.

Another is Ghana’s “winner takes all” political system where affiliates and funders of each of the two main political parties know that they will have access to easy and quick money whilst their party is in power, but face hard times when it is out of power.  Again, this incentivises getting as much as you can as quickly as you can, rather than working to build long-term value in Ghana.

However, despite flaws in the responses made to it, Covid-19 has shown that when the potential losses are clear enough and close enough, people everywhere are willing to accept and undertake drastic action to avoid them. That willingness to act and change is going to be needed not just to get the world through this epidemic, but for future challenges too. The massive shift in what we consider to be possible in terms of collective behavioural change to ensure a better future could therefore be a very positive outcome.

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Neighbours and others

The other trade-off I want to discuss is the boundary line we all draw between our “neighbours”, the group of people we are committed to, who we will share resources with and help look after in time of need, and “others”. Jesus taught that we should see all humanity as inside that boundary, in his story of the Good Samaritan, where a traditionally looked-down-upon enemy helps “one of us” in need, without any hope of recompense. But most of us draw the boundary much closer in – my family, perhaps my clan, maybe also members of my church or mosque but definitely not even all my fellow Ghanaians, let alone the world.

The lockdown has acutely highlighted the plight of millions of Ghanaians living off tiny daily wages they need each day to buy food, whilst the elite sail past in $150,000 Land Cruisers.  Of course, this is not a new issue. It shows our elite draws its boundaries for its neighbours close. That once may have seemed to be a smart strategy. Why share resources widely, when you can keep more for yourself and those closest to you?

Well, Covid-19 has shown that in an increasingly interconnected world, that strategy is flawed. Ultimately, we will swim together or sink together, so ensuring everyone has the opportunity for a decent and fulfilled life is not just the right thing to do, but also, in the long run, the right thing to do for oneself and one’s nearest and dearest (and most particularly the children and grand-children of today).

I therefore believe that alongside its many tragic consequences, the Covid-19 pandemic may do considerable good, if it helps us think longer term, and broadens our definition of who our neighbour is. If so, ironically it may also ultimately contribute to our collective survival and well-being.

 

Henry Abraham is a social entrepreneur based in Accra. His company HJA Africa sells the Ghana-made and highly cost-effective organic yield enhancer, fungicide and pest control Organic Farming Aid (OFA). This is set to make a significant positive impact on the profitability of African agriculture. Henry’s email is hjabraham@gmail.com 

 

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