Setting high bars or paying high prices – COVID-19’s tradeoff?

Komla TENDEKU

For many newly-minted Ghanaians, facing a deadly pandemic like COVID-19 has got us torn between reality and fiction. The horror of a virus pushing far into the corner the hope for survival. In one breath, everything seems like science-fiction and in another everything looks perfectly real as we watch the real scenes of people elsewhere. You can’t believe you are also here – just in the twinkle of an eye you feel almost like those in Wuhan and Milan.

For us here in Ghana, it has been like the early morning news as usual – watching afar the images on screens and reading details in print. But now we feel like we are living with it – COVID-19; and uncertainty is spreading even more than the virus itself.

Many of us are contemplating whether we need a lockdown at this time? Zou Yue of China Global Television Network, in sharing China’s experience, remarked that facing a global pandemic like COVID 19 is not what matters but how we respond to it.

According to Kwame Nfodwo – an international governance expert – the objective of a lockdown would be to master management of the disease, control its spread and, if possible, terminate community-acquired infections and achieve tolerable levels of clinical and hospital care which do not overwhelm our fragile health delivery system. Without doubt, we have to think about the way forward as a country.

For us who are concerned about the economy’s structure and the virus’s potential impact on livelihoods have a point, but must it end there? Can we not also consider the potential effect on lives and cost to livelihoods as spread of the virus continues exponentially in our case? Will our current health system be able to support us with essential health delivery, at least?

Health experts predict that Africa is yet to experience worst-cases of COVID-19 due to the low testing levels. That said, there could be further spikes in positively tested cases if we have the capacity to test like Western and Asian countries. This is, indeed, a challenging time for the country. Nevertheless, we will pay the price whether we take any precautionary measures now or not.

Many countries seem to be testing their own strategies so as to prevent a possible meltdown as was seen in the last century.

Consequently, some countries have chosen to implement partial or complete lockdowns due to the level of devastating effects from the virus. Chinas’ Hubei province – the epicentre of COVID-19 with a population of 61 million – implemented a total lockdown when it found 1 infection in every 19,264 people, with a single death out of every 34 infected persons.

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Similarly, Italy – which is currently recording the highest number of deaths – implemented a total lockdown when 1 out of every 6,541 of its people tested positive, with one death in every 94 infected cases. China’s pragmatic action proved to be effective, as it has so far recorded zero local infections for three continuous days – compared to increasing numbers of infections and death cases for Italy. Subsequently, many more countries – like United States of America, United Kingdom and the latest, South Africa – have implemented either partial or total lockdowns.

A lockdown is of course extreme, restrictive, aggressive and perhaps, one would say an “abuse of human rights”. But the balance between individual human rights and public safety is always a fluid concept. Indeed, during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, Sierra Leone and Liberia implemented some level of lockdowns.

Currently, the number of confirmed cases in Ghana have reached 132 as at 2pm on Friday, March 27, 2020, with three deaths and one recovery. So, I ask: can we trade a little freedom for the greater good of the public? South Korea, which has been commended by World Health Organisation for managing COVID-19, did not earn its scores on a silver platter.  South Korea had to loosen its privacy laws and enable government to have extensive instant access to personal information in order to track not only confirmed cases but suspected ones with complementary in-person interviews.

In modern economic society, the public policy needs both ends to agree; government, which is the decision-maker; and the people, who are the takers. Can we as Ghanaians push the frontiers of this discussion to decide the way to go before the worst happens? Where do we stand as a country?

As suggested by Zou Yue of CGTN, these are extraordinary times and every economy needs a new contract signed between politicians, businesses and the public; and we must act as such. There is no decision without trade-offs. But in the end, it is the ultimate best that we must pursue. What do we believe as a country would be best for all involved at this time?

There are already some suggestions and advice on the tables of decision-makers. But in this crucial moment, quality decisions are no longer a luxury or a choice of will. We need to be prudent in the policy measures we implement to have any chance of preventing the worst from happening. In the spirit of goodwill and participatory development, I support government with these policy options to strengthen our preparedness to combat COVID-19.

  1. Ministries for Monitoring & Evaluation & Finance quickly and thoroughly run an assessment of the potential impact of a lockdown, whether partial or total, on the economy’s various sectors.
  2. Discuss with industry players how they can review their annual returns and adjust their operations to limit the number of staff on daily basis, in line with presidential guidelines on gathering in return for some incentives.
  3. Engage our employed nurses and related graduates, retired critical health professionals to be recruited as volunteers/on limited contract, and request the Red Cross to recruit more volunteers (including relevant health-related students).
  4. NADMO, together with the social services department, must activate their emergency preparedness protocols and identify places hardest-hit for social intervention (let’s also not forget our rains are coming very soon).
  5. National Buffer Stock must review its receipts and inform government of food stock levels and food security strategies.
  6. Social safety nets be designed for the informal sectors and vulnerable groups for the urban population – i.e. kayaye, market women, tro tro drivers. In this regard, government must be commended for spraying markets to safeguard their health and businesses.
  7. Ministry of Communication in collaboration with the National Board for Small Scale Business (NBSSB) must be tasked to educate small businesses on using social media and digital tools to provide goods and services. In addition, help them to advertise their businesses on radio and television.
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For small businesses that are willing to digitize, a portal can be created for them to register by satisfying safety criteria like hygienic delivery systems and the ability to regularly disinfect delivery systems and possess MoMo accounts for transactions in order to be given clearance to operate.

  1. Religious bodies and organisations must be encouraged by government to channel Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) resources to support government efforts. E.g. producing and distributing sanitisers, pay voluntary health workers, identify low-income earning groups in churches and mosques and provide them with foodstuff and other essentials. Again, religious bodies must be encouraged to have dedicated numbers for members to call and report their health condition for assistance from health professionals within their communities.
  2. Lastly, NGOs and social organisations are encouraged to initiate funding-raising campaigns to support the vulnerable groups.

In all sincerity, we need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Do we set the bar high or pay the high prices now?

>>>The writer is a monitoring and evaluation coordinator at Cocoa Merchant Ghana Limited. dtendeku@yahoo.com

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