It took a global pandemic for Ghanaians to see what it might look like to have leaders who actually cared about ALL the country’s citizens. We’ve seen bills passed in 10 days, resources mobilized in record time and higher-than-normal levels of governmental transparency and accountability – necessary moves taken swiftly. Everything hasn’t been perfect, especially in terms of provisions for the poor and the consequent huge informal sector. However, President Akuffo-Addo’s government does deserve some plaudits for its handling of this crisis. While other presidents ˜passed the threat off as conspiracy theorist nonsense, our government acted fast.
This piece is not so much a critique of the government’s handling of the situation as it is a review of how we got here in the first place and an outline of reasons why, I believe, our handling of the situation is a lot more delicate than meets the eye. The saying a ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’ has been emphasised by COVID-19 has exposed the weakness that is our collective failure to address the pervasive issues of poverty and inequality preCOVID-19.
The initial swift handling of the virus by implementing lockdowns and other restrictive measures after just two cases was a move dictated by fear and rightly so. Should we have failed in our initial response, the number of Coronavirus cases would have hit the tens even hundreds of thousands by now as in Italy, Germany, United Kingdom and the United States. The lockdown was our buffer. These members of the G20 have the capacity to draw up huge stimulus packages to help bail themselves out of a poor start and implement lockdowns while simultaneously shoring up their health systems and testing capacity. Ghana does not have such luxuries because unfortunately, we are less well endowed, both financially or in terms of an existing robust infrastructure that could help ease our situation should cases have hit the obscene numbers that were seen in other countries.
It is because of this that it becomes slightly unfair to compare our decision making to that of the global north where resources are more readily available. A country steeped in poverty is fraught with the need for trade-offs and that is exactly what reflects in our current decision making today. The decision to maintain a lockdown as opposed to lifting it is accompanied by many considerations. The ideal scenario would be to maintain a lockdown while at the same time invest heavily in strengthening health systems and other crucial infrastructure, as demonstrated by the global north, but unfortunately we cannot.
COVID-19 has exposed us and our collective inaction, allowing poverty and inequality to grow out of hand. Ghana’s decisions pre-COVID-19 have largely maintained a huge informal sector, poor health facilities, poor education and educational facilities and energy issues to name a few crucial areas of infrastructure overlooked. This limits the options available to us in dealing with times of crisis.
A policy of waiving water bills for three months is only effective to the extent that communities actually have access to water and don’t have to trek miles just to fetch it or spend enormous sums purchasing water from tankers. Enforcing a lockdown is only effective if the majority of the population can survive without daily hand to mouth sales. Ensuring social distancing and self- isolation is only effective when human beings do not have to share confined spaces with 8 to 10 family members in squatter settlements.
The amount of resources and the level of expenditure necessary just to ensure basic survival is astronomical before one even considers expenditure on direct COVID-19 prevention measures. I am sure we would have all loved to see tremendous amounts of money spent on temporary COVID-19 hospitals, testing centers and checkpoints and pervasive local sensitization on protection in every region. We can still do some of those things, but not all at the same time and we certainly cannot do as many of them while spending all our resources on maintaining a lockdown.
Poverty and economic inequality have always been the biggest threats to the security of our country. Their effects are evidenced by Singapore. The country was a global example of how to handle the virus without going into lockdown, but recently suffered a huge spike in cases. Why? Because of their pre-COVID-19 treatment of migrant workers who are forced to live in conditions equivalent to a ‘third world country’. They underestimated the implications of migrant workers living in cramped dormitories, living on top of each other with 12 people together in tiny spaces – sound familiar? Perhaps if they had treated migrant workers just as they do Singaporean nationals,they would still be at only 229 instead of 5,000.
As Singapore emerges from the throes of COVID-19 I am sure lessons will trigger a policy response in favour of equity and favourable treatment of all citizens, ensuring at least, that the provision of quality housing is fair for all residents.
COVID-19 may not pitting the rich and the poor against each other but it is certainly demonstrating how ignoring poverty is not in the best interest of anybody, leaving us all vulnerable in times of crisis. Good governance and development is the best security measure out there and we must heed weaknesses COVID-19 has laid bare.
Equity is key – hopefully Ghana’s future recovery and policy responses will ensure politics works for the majority and not the few. May our leadership begin to take more seriously, the fundamental threat of poverty and growing inequality in the nation. As we emerge from this crisis, our view of how well we do as a country should be determined not by the number of luxury condos and plush vehicles on the roads but by the well-being of the most vulnerable in society, because that is where our true collective strength lies. The saying “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link” has never rang more true to us as a people than it does now.