The entire world has literally come to standstill as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic caused by the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2).
Some industries such as the aviation and tourism industries have been hard hit while others like manufacturers of medical equipment have seen a boom in business. Cities have been put under lockdown and many countries’ health care systems and government structures have been put to test while citizens have had to make drastic lifestyle changes in a collaborative effort in bringing this pandemic under control. “As cases of the pandemic emerged across the globe, people went into panic mode fearing what was to follow. Judging from situations in other countries such as the US with videos flooding the internet of shoppers in supermarkets, scrambling for groceries, and toiletries in order to stock up their homes, other countries watched in horror wishing and praying the virus doesn’t penetrate their territories.
If wishes were horses and if prayer alone could kill viruses, Ghana would never record a single COVID-19 case or death for that matter because the entire nation prayed and fasted against COVID-19. One very crucial measure the Ghana government put in place during the pandemic was a 3week lockdown in some cities with specific emphasis on physical/social distancing. Although a lockdown seemed like a step in the right direction, the economic implications for the ordinary Ghanaian made it unsustainable in the long run. While this was all in good stride, let us take a closer look at some of the recent happenings for a bit of self-reflection.
We are all connected by food and part of a larger food community (https://www.slowmovement.com/cfs.php) thus, one of the major things everyone was concerned about was access to food as preparations were put in place for an announcement of a lockdown, every household rushed to the market to secure some foodstuff for the coming days.
What a lockdown meant for the Ghanaian populace was that there would be a shortage of labor to produce food. As we all know, marginal farming in the capital is a huge contributor to our vegetable production.
Thus a reduction in labour would lead to a decreased supply of certain commodities, it makes it increasingly difficult for farmers in neighbouring regions to gain access to markets due to transport restrictions, thereby, blocking the food delivery chain and inevitably increasing the cost of food items (http://www.fao.org/2019-ncov/q-and-a/impact-on-food-and-agriculture/en/?utm_content=bufferceb1f&utm_medium=social&utm_source=linkedin.com&utm_campaign=buffer).
Considering the Ghanaian situation a good number of citizenry do not have the luxury of a refrigerator to store perishable foods, or even if a household owns a refrigerator, it sure isn’t large enough to keep sufficient food items for more than two weeks.
This got me wondering, wouldn’t it be ideal for every household to have some sort of a garden? Vegetables grown in pots or directly in the ground could be a life-saver whether you live in a flat or a house with a compound, saving one a trip to the market for basic items like pepper, okra, tomatoes etc. which have shot up in price in the market during this pandemic.
In these difficult times, we must also reconsider our dietary preferences, choosing dry foods with longer shelf lives over fresh foods. We could learn to substitute proteins like fresh meat and eggs with dry foods such as pulses, dry fish, smoked meat, powdered milk, pickled vegetables, etc. in the event of a shortage of freshly harvested staple foods like cassava, plantain, and yams, we should consider processed alternatives like yam and plantain powder which can be stored for much longer periods.
This brings us to the issue of production which reiterates the need for factories to process our raw materials into finished products, ready for the shelves. Although the Minister for Agriculture has assured us that Ghana has enough food in store despite the outbreak, we do not know for certain how long the stocks will last (https://citinewsroom.com/2020/04/covid-19-food-prices-are-cheaper-now-agric-minister-claims/).
In spite of the assurance of food security, we cannot be assured of economic security as many have lost their daily bread as a result of COVID-19. Regardless of the scale of production, going forward, it would be prudent for us to learn some gardening in order to sustain our families and communities so we do not have to queue for hours for aid in the form of cooked or raw food.
Another measure put in place to curb the further spread of the virus was the closure of borders across many countries. Ghana followed suit soon after the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded. Closing up borders meant there was a cut in the supply of logistics necessary to fight against the pandemic. This has led to the shortage of items such as gloves, hand sanitizers, nose masks, and PPE across the country, bringing to light our shortfalls in the area of production as there was a surge in demand for surgical masks and hand sanitizers. This taught us another crucial lesson – to be self-sufficient and learn to manufacture more than we import.
Necessity they say is the mother of inventions. Impressively, several entities came up with innovative ideas to help fill in this gap.
For instance, the Greater-Accra regional hospital (Ridge hospital) came up with locally manufactured nose masks, as well as other private individuals who started making nose masks out of ankara print fabrics. Production of rubbing alcohol, soaps, and hand sanitizers also increased, as the FDA fast-tracked the registration of tons of products for the fight against COVID-19 (https://citinewsroom.com/2020/04/fda-approves-327-hand-sanitizers-for-covid-19-fight-full-list/). My question is, why were we importing foreign brands like Purell and Carex all this while when we could make our own? Perhaps we needed an iota of push from a 125 nm virus.
A wake-up call
Brilliant ideas came from genius minds such as Mr. Selorm Agbo and a team from the Academic City University who designed prototypes of a ventilator and Mr. Richard Kwarteng who invented the solar-paneled automated hand-washing machine.
Very commendable achievement, especially with the fast-tracked approval of the Ghana Standards Authority (GSA) for mass production of the hand-washing machine. Many others followed such as the KNUST ventilator (https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/KNUST-demonstrates-working-operation-of-locally-made-ventilator-930886), and the KNUST-INCAS diagnostics’ Rapid COVID-19 diagnostic test. (https://allafrica.com/stories/202004290730.html), Local PPE production (https://www.africaglobalradio.com/local-companies-make-progress-in-ppe-production-for-covid-19-fight/), Not forgetting the increased number of testing centres including the Biomedical and Public Health Unit of the CSIR-Water Research Institute, University of Health and Allied Sciences and the Tamale Teaching Hospital, to augment the overwhelmed KCCR and Noguchi testing centres.
News like these makes you proud to be Ghanaian at that moment. Then suddenly, reality hits you and you begin to ask more analytical questions like what percentage of the materials used in the production of these “locally made” items are actually sourced from Ghana? So that, should this pandemic continue for a longer period, and our borders remain closed, are we still able to produce these innovations on a large scale? For instance, the wiring, the batteries, solar panels, the metal frames, the plastic tubes, the rapid test cassettes, etc.
Can we do without importing any part and still manufacture quality products in a timely manner? I ask these questions because I do not know of any factory in Ghana that manufactures batteries for instance, which are needed in some of these innovations.
On the bright side, the current proactive spirit the nation has adopted says a lot about what we are capable of achieving as a nation. Henceforth we should trust our scientists to develop equipment of international standards instead of resorting to expensive imported equipment that becomes white elephants in a short time due to lack of maintenance.
If the equipment is locally manufactured, local technicians can keep up maintenance works when they break down. It would be nice to see researchers across the country collaborating to form companies like Dyson, Omron, Philips, and the like, carpenters, and welders working together to form companies like IKEA instead of the mini roadside production that is so common. By doing this, the government can easily assign contracts to reputable local companies for hospital beds, medical equipment, and so on.
Due to the nature of our style of building and our community structure, there is very little that can be done to regulate movement in and out of our communities. In an ideal setting, communities should have strict demarcations as to where they begin and end, with a physical border/barrier – thus, giving a sense of a gated community.
Details of residents or visitors will be recorded as and when they enter and leave the communities. This would make contact tracing more efficient and ensure people adhere to lockdown measures. However, let us bear in mind that many Ghanaians live in neighborhoods with little or no specific community structure, making it difficult for any kind of proper organization. It is about time we paid closer attention to structuring our communities such that, at any point in time, we have a fair idea of the residents at a particular place and time.
Rent laws in Ghana state that a tenant is to pay a maximum of 6 months’ advanced rent, however, this is not adhered to. In many instances, homeowners demand as much as 1-2years advance payment. It is very difficult to regulate this law as the housing deficit stands at $2million units (https://propertytrendsonline.com/housing-deficit-in-ghana-can-social-housing-be-the-solution/).
There is little intervention from the government to provide homes for the average Ghanaian, thus subjecting tenants to unfair tenancy agreement terms and forcing people to live in make-shift structures in crowded communities. I bring this to light because many countries instructed landlords not to collect rent for about 3 months during this pandemic or at least reduce the rent. How does a country like Ghana take up such an initiative when a tenant has already paid their rent in full for a year or more?
On top of it all, many of these facilities do not meet the standard of living per government requirement. Basic facilities such as a toilet and a bath are lacking in some of these houses put up for rent, forcing the tenant to use public toilets on a daily basis.
How can a government enforce a total lockdown when something as basic as a toilet can only be accessed some distance away from one’s home? Research has shown that stool samples from COVID-19 patients were positive for viral RNA (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/04/how-does-coronavirus-kill-clinicians-trace-ferocious-rampage-through-body-brain-toes?utm_campaign=news_daily_2020-04-17&et_rid=456886168&et_cid=3290441#). Meaning people who have to use a public toilet on a daily basis are at a higher risk of contracting the disease from these facilities which are already poorly managed.
Amenities like water, gas, and electricity which should be available within a home is like a luxury to many Ghanaians. How can citizens obey lockdown rules when some communities do not enjoy running tap water? Many people have to go out to fetch water in head pans or buckets for daily use, as well as buy charcoal in bits for daily food preparation. Others who are more fortunate also have to go out from time to time, to buy LPG gas in a portable cylinder for cooking purposes. I look forward to a time where the average Ghanaian will have LPG flowing through their cooking burners in their homes just like water is supposed to flow through their taps.
The manner in which we handle waste in Ghana is appalling. A huge percentage of Ghanaians do not or cannot segregate their waste. How does a COVID-19 patient in home isolation ensure that his/her used tissue is disposed-off properly, there is no labeling, no sorting on a household level nor during waste collection by the garbage collectors.
Apart from hospitals that have a system in place to incinerate medical waste, (service available at the Industrial Research Institute of the CSIR (http://www.csir-iir.com/), everything is thrown into the truck and sent away to the landfill. Our landfills are over-flooded with items that are recoverable, recyclable, or reusable. However, the reverse happens. You find people scrambling the landfills, in search of scrap metal, plastics, glass, etc. I believe there are better ways we can handle our waste in order to ease the pressure on our landfills which are already overwhelmed especially in this pandemic. Imagine people being exposed to COVID-19 while rummaging through bins for something to recover.
One way China conquered the pandemic was through intensive contact tracing using artificial intelligence such as facial recognition and surveillance cameras to track down individuals who had come into contact with a person confirmed to have COVID-19.
The timing was everything. These traced individuals were contacted and isolated to truncate the further spread of the virus in a timely manner. I imagine the ease with which everything adds up in a country like China where netizens travel with their national ID cards and are required to register at the local police station within 24 hours of moving into a city. At every point in time, your whereabouts are known.
Our situation in Ghana doesn’t allow for such swift responses as we do not have surveillance cameras in our public transport systems, nor do we keep records of citizen’s movements. When someone moves into a community, there’s no way to tell that individual A is currently residing in community X, House No. 123.
There’s just no way to tell. The lack of records of people’s whereabouts and their permanent and temporary addresses makes it extremely difficult to gather crucial data to run a nation. When cases of COVID-19 dwindled in Wuhan, and life began to return to the city, authorities lifted lockdown measures but with a LOT of precautions. China made good use of data to regulating people’s lives by setting up a system where you are assigned a colour code (green, yellow, or red) that indicates their health status using a mobile app. The software determines whether someone should be quarantined or allowed into public places and this has been adopted by over 200 cities in China so far (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/01/business/china-coronavirus-surveillance.html).
These are some of the measures China has adopted to overcome the situation. Can Ghana do the same? Mathematical models could be used to tackle this pandemic more efficiently, however, the data is unavailable. The population of Ghanaians capable of using such software is too little to make such a system work.
Something as basic as distribution of food to the vulnerable has proven to be a challenge, all because there’s not enough data to work with. I see the food-sharing fiasco as a failure and one of the flaws that could undermine every other countermeasure during this pandemic. Specifically the social distancing protocol.
Ghana is one of the sub-Saharan countries with a fast-growing electronic money system since the introduction of services such as mobile money and various mobile banking platforms. E-transactions have reduced the need to queue in banks for basic money transfers.
Although Ghanaians are gradually learning to fully accept e-money, many are still skeptical over accepting e-cash as an accepted form of payment due to dubious scammers who always seem to be ahead of the game. Ideally, in dire times such as these, e-cash would have been another measure to reduce the spread of the virus, however, due to the lack of a uniform payment platform, you still find people handling physical cash because many service providers refuse to accept e-cash due to its numerous inconveniences.
For instance, even if a vendor is willing to accept e-cash, you might not use the same service provider, disallowing you to transact business effortlessly. Moving forward, government and Telecommunication companies need to put more measures in place in order for the Ghanaian populace to fully embrace a cashless system.
My mind travels to the COVID-19 positive market women who use public toilet facilities in the market, handing cash to customers such as food vendors from whom we buy food. I hope you know where this is heading? It is very unlikely that one will remember to sanitize or wash their hands every time they handle money. The money goes into your purse or wallet, touching keys, bank and ID cards, etc.
There are conflicting views of exactly how long the virus can survive on surfaces. While scientists are doing their part, we should also play our role in beating this virus without getting complacent.
Let us not rush to imagine life after COVID-19 without doing an introspective analysis of ourselves as individuals and as a nation during this pandemic. Instead, let us learn to be more self-sustaining as a nation. So that we do not necessarily import food or other items we can clearly produce on our own or throw everything in the garbage. Instead, let us learn to reduce our waste by for instance using kitchen waste for compost, properly disposing of off hazardous materials like old batteries, expired chemicals or drugs, etc.
We need better transport systems such as passenger trains which will allow people to commute easily between cities, thereby reducing urban migrations, as well as cargo trains which can transport foodstuff to markets faster, hence, reducing spoilage. From an environmental point of view, there would be fewer emissions, less traffic, and as a result, a reduced carbon footprint. I miss the fresh air I could boldly inhale while Accra was on lockdown. There were less vehicular traffic and fewer emissions.
We have to take another look at our housing policy such that estate developers begin to factor in rainwater harvesting systems as part of their housing plans to help reduce the occurrence of flooding especially in the capital as well augment the services provided by Ghana Water Company Limited (GWCL). Considering the fact that some communities do not yet enjoy the services of GWCL, having multiple sources of water in a home can be so convenient especially in dry season with its attendant scanty water supply leading to technical challenges for the GWCL. When the president announced that Ghanaians would enjoy free water for three months https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Ghanaians-to-enjoy-free-water-for-3-months-915178, not everyone jubilated because some people could not relate to this “luxury” while many wondered if their taps would even flow at all. I guess we will find out after all this is over.
Moving forward, we should consider rooftop gardening for people who live in flats or backyard gardening for people with ample space in their compounds or community gardens and farmers’ markets. This could help bring life back into our communities and our ecosystem through community food systems.
I believe the calling off of the lockdown was based on economic reasons more than anything. Inevitably leaving us to our fate. With our current numbers COVID-19 cases up to 2,074 and counting, it is up to you and I to stay woke and protect ourselves from this mutating virus. Until a cure is found, all we can do is to stay safe and survive. Staying at home shouldn’t mean starving to death. Let’s get up, and make something out of this crisis for surely, this isn’t going to be the last pandemic we witness in our lifetime.
The author is a principal Research Technologist at the CSIR- Water Research Institute, Accra and currently a Ph.D. student of the Nanjing University of Science and Technology – China, studying Environmental Science and Engineering