Ever since COVID-19 reared its ugly head, many deaths have occurred in many countries throughout the world. Ghana is no exception. The disease does not know the rich or the poor, the weak or the strong. Many people, especially celebrities, in Ghana tend to shroud their sicknesses in secrecy.
Ghanaians are by nature very secretive about certain issues especially when it concerns sickness. This is mainly due to superstition. A woman may be pregnant but tries to hide it for a very long time without telling anyone until the stomach begins to protrude. The reason for keeping it secret is that when the pregnancy is a few weeks old, there is the fear that the eye of the witch can easily destroy it.
Some of us can be inconsiderate when it comes to certain diseases that cannot be hidden. Once you get diseases like leprosy, goitre or elephantiasis, people tend to laugh or blame you as if you deliberately brought the sickness upon yourself. The fear of being ridiculed has caused those who have infectious diseases with dire consequence for those who come close to them to keep them secret.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this pandemic is the rate at which people are hiding their infections. Sometimes, some people who have been diagnosed with the disease come out to deny it in public. Is the fear of stigmatization the real reason for keeping their infections as top secret?
Ghana's Minister of Health, Kweku Agyeman-Manu, tested positive for Covid-19. Either because of fear of stigmatization or the likelihood of “secret” jubilation by the opposition NDC, he came out to assure Ghanaians that he had no Covid-19 and that he was just resting at the hospital. But the President, in one of his Sunday addresses, revealed that the Dormaa Central representative who also doubles as Minister for Health, Hon. had been infected with the virus. He asked everyone to wish him speedy recovery. The Minister has been leading the fight against Covid-19. He was the first high profile government official to be infected with coronavirus. Why did he decide to hide his condition from the public?
He hid it because in Ghana, we hold our leaders high above the ordinary people, call them Honourable, Excellences, etc. This gives the impression that such people are also above petty and serious illnesses. But this, we all know, is a false impression.
The leaders also hid the illnesses because they are afraid of being thought weak by the people. They are particularly afraid that their political enemies (those from the opposition parties and those from within the party vying for the same positions) will secretly rejoice over their “misfortunes”.
Another negative aspect of keeping infections hidden is that, the infected denies himself the help that may enable him overcome stigmatization and discrimination. To find out how many people are keeping their infections secret, a cross-sectional survey of 300 adults from four sub-districts in Kumasi was conducted. It was found out that three people had coronavirus and were likely to have infected other people.
This culture of secrecy concerning celebrities who have diseases is prevalent in Africa. It is not so in other countries. When the British Prime Minster contracted the virus, it was widely reported. He courted genuine sympathy even from those who don’t support him. It was the same with Prince Charles, the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari and many more. These well-known leaders who tested positive for COVID-19 were not ashamed or afraid of stigmatization.
Often, celebrities who have serious illnesses become spokespersons for such illnesses raising public awareness of them. Ghanaian celebrities and leaders should also learn from such gestures.
Fortunately, things are changing gradually in Ghana concerning this virus. Public figures are getting infected and some are dying. It is changing attitudes in the country for the better. Now we all know anybody can be infected.
Covid-19 is going to be with us for some time. Every Ghanaian needs to take food or drugs that will boost the immune system. Social distancing, frequent washing of hands and wearing of masks are the only known ways of avoiding the virus. We should take them seriously.
We must treat all those who recover from Covid-19 as heroes and heroines and stretch our hands to welcome them home. We must condemn all those who continue to adopt the culture of secrecy when they are tested positive for coronavirus. There is nothing shameful about catching the virus.
Columnist: Stephen Atta Owusu
Author: Dark Faces at Crossroads