The declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic by Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), sent shivers through the spine of many countries around the world. This follows the fast spread of the virus affecting people of all shades of social stratum−old, young, rich, poor and so on.
As immediate global response gathered momentum, countries began suspending international flights from places known to have reported high cases of infections into their respective jurisdictions. Also, sporting activities and international conferences have all been put on hold or cancelled to avoid the risk of further spread. To assure citizens of preparedness, huge sums of financial allocations have been announced by various governments around the world for emergency response.
In Ghana, following the first two reported cases of the virus, the President via a televised broadcast announced an allocation of $100 million as a sign of government’s commitment towards tackling the virus head-on. A pretty good number of Ghanaians and health experts were enthused about the intervention.
At the very least, it provided a certain level of assurance that our government cared about us and seeks not our death. Further announcements have been made by the Ghanaian leader announcing more drastic measures such as compulsory quarantine of travelers entering the country, contact tracing and testing and closure of its borders be it air, land or sea to protect Ghanaians as the reported cases have now jumped to four hundred and eight (408) as at the time of writing this piece. Panic, fears and apprehensions have engulfed the Ghanaian society, if not exaggerating, many are petrified as every single soul tries to adopt precautionary measures such as social distancing, self-isolation as recommended by the WHO and Ghanaian health officials.
Social media as expected is flooded with information (at least majority of which are quite helpful) educating Ghanaians about the symptoms of Covid 19 while at the same time some are expressing concerns about gaps relative to government’s interventions to as it were compelling government to do more to unease those anxieties.
Countries such as Italy, UK, India, South Africa, and some parts of the US have declared complete lockdowns; whereas other countries are considering doing same; meaning the world is gradually coming to a standstill, as countries are not welcoming others into their jurisdictions. What this Covid 19 and perhaps other previous pandemics such as Ebola have triggered is, how prepared and robust is our country’s health system and by extension the society in protecting human lives generally?
As it stands, there is a ‘travel ban’ for even the top echelon of society (high ranking public officials); meaning that should any of them fall sick, they would have no option than to be treated here (at least based on what we have been told by leadership) by the very healthcare system they have not strengthened for whatever reasons.
A challenged healthcare system like ours may sound like a death sentence for many who may get infected. That said, there was also a cross-section of Ghanaians who doubted whether considering the challenges within our healthcare architecture, the allocation by government ($100M), was adequate enough to counteract the impending danger. Reports of shortage of medical consumables and lack of health personnel in some areas of the country in the media question whether we are indeed up to the task to safeguard the most fundamental human right (life), which is seriously under threat at this time of human civilization.
The above underscored, at least, something is being done by government. Any healthcare system which assures the full realization of right to health is hinged on four pillars; affordability, availability, accessibility and of good quality. Any intervention by government will most likely not succeed in the absence of these safeguards. But can we confidently say that the totality of our healthcare system can pass these tests as Covid-19 cases soar?
Then came quite a forceful campaign urging people to wash their hands with soap intermittently, use of hand sanitizers and rubbing alcohol and so on. As someone who analyses interventions from the human rights perspective, I began asking myself, what is the implication of all these advocacy on the lives of marginalized who often times lack certain basic social services like clean water and economic resources (money) to procure sanitizers?
In other words, how have we factored them into these interventions? So for instance, I posted on my Facebook wall that, at the height of Covid-19, the poor is more vulnerable.
I justified by saying that without clean water, how can any hand-washing be effective? I also queried that in times of exorbitant prices of hand sanitizers; how can the poor afford them to keep themselves safe and that of others because clearly this pandemic has evidenced once again that society is interconnected in several ways. Recent government and private sector interventions are laudable, but conscious human rights actions are needed. Therefore, the safety of the marginalized is a necessary condition for the safety of all.
I further asked that, in a social distancing era, what becomes of our crowded spaces such as the prisons and institutionalized care centres like orphanages and so on. Prisoners for instance have no option of adopting social distancing mechanisms which is at the disposal of the ‘free person’. I further probed, how have we factored in persons living with disabilities into the various interventions?
At least, on the face of it, there appears to be none. This global challenge brings to the fore once again that as a society it is in our interest to vigorously pursue development that is more focused, coordinated, pragmatic and above all human rights centered.
Society interacts with these marginalized groups and in situations such as these, once they are left out in any intervention, it tends to undermine the entire efforts in achieving any effective result − an outcome which makes everyone safe. The need for a functioning health system, access to basic social services and opportunities for all are a prerequisite for a successful emergency health response in times like these.
Finally, it should be emphasized that effective human rights commitment is a precondition for a prosperous society where everyone is a safe and sound. After Covid-19, we should not forget to vigorously pursue human rights on all fronts, leaving no one behind.
The writer, Samuel Ogbe Nokolawe, is a Human Rights Researcher and works with the National Human Rights Institution of Ghana
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