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Coronavirus: Looking at the global pandemic from a Ghanaian lens

Thu, 11 Jun 2020 Source: Martin Elorm Dogbo

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Even though there have been similar pandemics in the past, none of them can be compared to the SARS-CoV 2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome- CoronaVirus 2) which the world has observed and experienced fatally from the latter part of last year. This is what almost everybody knows today as COVID 19. This term is made up of a combination of an acronym and a date— CoronaVirus Disease19. 19 because the first case was officially recorded in the year 2019 when the Wuhan Province in China chose to be silent on this disease. When all attempts by Chinese authorities to contain the virus failed, the whole world had to bear its deadly consequences.

ON POLITICS AND GOVERNANCE

Politics, or government as euphemistically, is used to run countries irrespective of the system of government practiced worldwide. Matters concerning education, health, security, welfare and other economic issues are determined by politics and politicians in every country.

One thing most people will neither be able to overlook nor forget is the fact that COVID 19 since its outbreak truly brought every country on its knees whether or not a country is first, second or third world.

Most governments have resorted to the closure of its borders, partial restriction of flights at airports and habours or ports, ban on social gathering and as such parties, conferences, funerals and other gatherings of people had been limited for at most 25 persons. In this regard, there have been closure of almost all educational institutions and religious institutions. This has resulted in the adoption of online learning or e-learning modes of education by a few advanced schools who can afford this new computerized method of teaching and learning. In severe circumstances, there was a lockdown that enforced people to be in the home by placing restrictions to movement.

The United States of America (USA), Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom (UK) and countries who have an advanced system in terms of development, better healthcare, education, technology and wealth recorded more cases in death than struggling African and other developing countries.

Even though the cases kept rising, Ghana eased restrictions when it lifted lockdown measures on 20 April, thus making it the first sub-Saharan African country to do so. Ghanaians were in a dilemma to choose between staying hungry during lockdown and risking lives to get infected while seeking livelihood. Ghanaians chose the latter because hunger seems to be a more painful way to die. The country’s Minister of Finance Ken Ofori-Atta argued the 21-day lockdown of Ghana’s biggest cities had become financially unbearable for most of the population, a concern that gave the government little choice but to lift the restriction.

THE HEALTH SECTOR

The World Health Organization (WHO), the mother umbrella expertise worldwide organization responsible for all health-related issues in many countries worldwide, came up with some healthy practices and protocols that ought to be done habitually and reinforced repetitively to help curb the spread of the disease. Among them are washing of hands, wearing of nose/face masks, maintaining a social distance of at least two meters, staying at home as well as any other stipulated health protocol that may be prescribed as time goes on. This way has been a few of the available steps governments and their health sectors have adopted or adapted to handle the COVID 19 pandemic. For the moment, we have to turn deaf ears to conspiracy theories linking the outbreak of the pandemic as an opportunity for affluent medical businesses and investors to make more money by introducing a virus and later bringing up a vaccine to heal the world at a profit.

However, whereas most advanced countries were facing a shortage of PPEs for its workers, COVID 19 exposed developing countries to the large gaps in our health sectors. The lack of PPEs, inadequate qualified health personnel, and meager health facilities were all revealed. In Ghana, for instance, the government's ability to swallow the bitter political pill after unnecessary delay and use the Bank Hospital as well as partially converting the Church of Pentecost Convention Center into a quarantine center. Despite all these resource challenges, the government has been admirably touted to have managed the COVID 19 situation very well.

EDUCATION

In terms of education, the focus is on tertiary education. This is because pre-tertiary education in the public sector pays little or no fees due to government absorption for the promotion of the Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education (CUBE) as well as the Free Senior High School (FSHS) agenda. Students of the University of Ghana who called for the refund of school fees have solid points of arguments students in other universities must push for. Most universities charge so much for facilities whether modern or antediluvian. Money generated from university fees is used to cover libraries, laboratories, ICT centers, sports fields, roads, parking space, electricity, water, and many other facilities. Due to the impromptu introduction of online lectures, most of these above-mentioned facilities will be redundant or underused as most of the student population will be off-campus.

Thankfully, some of the few private universities have cut fees to an observably tangible percentage. The ability of Central University to cut its fees up to over fifty percent (50%+) is commendable and should not be too Herculean a task for public universities to do.

The visibly loud silence of authorities of public universities leaves struggling Ghanaians to decode the message that public universities are now only interested in making money even if it has to turn a blind eye to fiscal struggles borne out of the deadly business collapsing COVID 19 period. Maybe someday sooner, the autonomy that public universities are still clinging on irrespective of the passage of the University Bill will be affected due to its heartless stance on fee reduction. Well, how powerful can a university be without the support of its tens of thousands of student population?

RELIGION

Religious institutions also had their share of suffering when a ban was placed on all religious activities and gatherings. Christians, Muslims, Traditional and other religions had to adhere to government directives to close all related institutions that enabled mass worship and prayers. Tithes and offerings which have been the principal source of revenue for churches dwindled radically. Religious festive activities such as Easter and Eid’l Fetir were observed and celebrated indoors at small family levels. A call by most religious heads for a national fasting was held as a plea for mercy from God. Coincidentally, the slow rate at which deprived African countries were getting infected and dying from the virus was a cold comfort. This, some men of God of African descent have attributed this to fasting and prayer sessions they have been holding noticeably and surreptitiously. A few have attributed the low death rate to population size difference, luck or healthy and traditional herbal consumption of food and medication.

In June when the president partially permitted religious gathering up to a hundred heads for a period not exceeding 60 minutes, some churches issued communiqués to still remain close for further notice and assessment of the negative health implications.

BANK LOANS AND MORTGAGES

Though Ghana has no intentions of easing the financial burden on citizens, the banking sector has been one of the safest businesses that have not been affected by the pandemic; loans and mortgages are still being paid despite these struggling times in Ghana.

Some countries have introduced Mortgage Forbearance. This has facilitated the ability to agree to temporarily suspend or reduce monthly loan or mortgage payments for a specified period to repay later. In New York, for instance, the governor suspended mortgage payments for at least three months for borrowers who were facing financial hardship due to Coronavirus.

To the banking sector, the easing of this financial burden is like squeezing blood out of stone. Perhaps, since the government has not given the directive, bankers will gladly turn a blind eye to struggling customers.

COVID 19 AND ELECTIONS

One noticeable thing is that the virus has persisted from its outbreak to a period where most countries are about to hold their general elections.

Countries like the USA and Ghana, among others are in their election year.

Many developing countries have taken advantage of the loans and grants made available by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to support their economy in terms of health and other stimulus packages of food and small and medium scale loans for traders and other people heavily affected in their countries despite a silent political advantage it gives the most ruling government in the upcoming elections. Unlike the developing countries, advanced countries like the USA, UK, and other Western nations opted to borrow from its national reserves for budgetary and economic support to businesses to curb collapse as COVID 19 cases keep rising. In the USA for instance, families are given Economic Impact Payments of 1,200 or 2,400 Dollars for a lawful single citizen or married couple to manage as the pandemic persists; there were also 500 Dollars for a child. There were also directives to pause the payment of rent for the period of three months, which some African countries emulated.

The informal economy remains a daunting challenge for Ghana in terms of taxation as compared to other governments. All strategic efforts to broaden the tax base at the informal sector consistently run into a cul de sac.

A smaller share of GDP for Ghana compared to other developing countries is due to taxes. This leaves Ghana to remain highly indebted as time goes by. The manner in which interest payments eat into approximately one-third of the government revenues is more alarming than education or healthcare.

In Ghana for instance, besides pausing the payment of water and electricity bills for only a period of three months with interrupted utility supply, the government began sharing food to some less privileged communities but immediately stopped as private individuals and organizations stepped in to lend a hand.

Ghanaians will go to the polls at the end of the year to make a politically tough choice between the sitting president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, and his predecessor, John Dramani Mahama. Both political candidates are contesting to complete an additional term of 4 years. They are both going to share around 90 percent of the votes cast. Many governments worldwide, including Ghana, have taken advantage of special emergency loans from the IMF to manage the outbreak of the Coronavirus in their countries. It is an undeniable fact in Ghana that these acts have received quite some commendations from beneficiary citizens in terms of the health sector and the informal sector. These seem to be seen by some other politicians in opposition as an unusual advantage for incumbents to score informal political points in the upcoming election. Government of the day, they say, has the “power of the purse” and thus can use it to their advantage if at least citizens will have infinitesimal benefits.

This 2020 election year in Ghana for instance has generated a plethora of arguments due to the intention of the Electoral Commission of Ghana (EC) to compile a new voter’s register. Ghanaians are waiting for the EC to furnish the Supreme Court why it decided to refuse to accept the existing voters’ identification card as a form of identification in the upcoming mass voters registration exercise. It is only posterity that will be able to tell whether or not whatever reason given is palpable.

However, the services of a soothsayer would not be required to know that the ease of restrictions will benefit EC registrations officials more than persons who patronize religious and social gatherings or events such as the churchgoing and funeral holding. It is axiomatic that the lengthy period spent at most churches in Ghana will not fit into the one hour period allocated to the churches by the president’s directive. Though chronological, the chain of communiqués issued by some churches to remain closed speaks loudly. The inadequate resources, human and capital, required for the introduction and maintenance of stipulated safety protocols could possibly be a modern-day Herculean task. In this regard, some pyrrhic victories are worth not pursuing in the first place.

In worst-case scenarios, one will be tempted to ask: “Can the 2020 elections be postponed due to delay in finalizing the new voter register during this COVID 19 period?” Well, some rhetorical questions just require thorough thoughts.

By Martin Elorm Dogbo Strategic Communicator & Educationist elormmdogbo@gmail.com Accra New Town.

Columnist: Martin Elorm Dogbo