When the government of Ghana closed the borders and imposed restrictions on the largest cities of Accra and Kumasi on March 22nd people expected the lockdown to last, as it did in many other African countries. Yet only three weeks later the restrictions were relaxed although the number of cases had increased from 141 to 1042. Today there are more than 10.000 positive cases in the country. What, therefore, informed the policy for easing restrictions when Ghana is yet to peak? And what are the potential pitfalls of such an approach?
Ghana’s ability to undertake aggressive contact tracing, testing, including understanding of the dynamism of the virus were some of the grounds for lifting the partial lockdown. Many Ghanaians questioned this; particularly, when the positive cases keep rising in the face of a significant reduction of contact tracers due to delayed and non-payment of allowances.
Ironically, restrictions have been further relaxed. Churches and mosques can now begin religious gatherings with a maximum of 100 members for a one-hour period. The number of persons allowed at funerals and other social events have been increased from 25 to 100.
Government said that, after weeks of consultations, there was consensus on easing the restrictions. The post-easement reaction however raises doubts. First, the Christian Council of Ghana had indicated that they were not going to rush government to lift the ban on the closure of church gatherings. Second, after the eased restriction on social gatherings all the (major) churches and mosques in Ghana have issued public statements that, given the current situation, it is inappropriate to commence in-person religious activities.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set six conditions – “the WHO test” - for the easing of restrictions. The conditions are: (1) controlled disease transmission, (2) ability to detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact, (3) minimized risks at hot spot and vulnerable places, (4) schools, workplaces and other essential places have established preventive measures, (5) the risk of importing new cases can be managed, and, (6) communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal.
Ghana’s disease transmission and positive cases have increased over 900% since the lifting of the partial lockdown. Again, with the reduction in contact tracing personnel, Ghana’s ability to detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact is challenged. The minimization of hot spot risks (3) goes hand-in-hand with the 6th WHO condition – education. The COVID-19 education has been on the low. The government’s communication on the spread of the virus is yet to fully respond to Ghana’s context. There is no supervision or checks at work and other non-essential places to ensure observance of the preventive measures. Rather, the easing down has created a certain public psychology - that Ghana has won the war already. Clearly, the government’s basis for easing the restrictions cannot be said to be WHO-compliant. So, what may have been influencing the policy on easing?
The President has been famously quoted for saying: “We know what to do to bring back our economy back to life. What we do not know how to do is to bring people back to life”. Given this statement, economic reasons for easing the restrictions should be the last resort. But, the subsequent claim by Ghana’s Finance Minister, that, “given that 90% of our population is informal and they go out each day to earn wages, it became increasingly impossible to continue with such a policy (lockdown),” suggests that the economy has at least partly informed the easing of the lockdown.
Again, public discourse suggests that this being an election year may be a contributory factor. This has been linked to the intended compilation of a new voters register by Ghana’s Electoral Commission (EC) as has been fully endorsed by the government. Ghana’s Majority Leader, a member of the ruling government, has said that with a new voter register, the opposition party NDC will never win an election.
For the registration, the EC must however bring over 17 million Ghanaians together; clearly against the ban on social gathering. Since the new voters’ register seems to be a political necessity for the ruling government, it would make political sense to relax the restrictions. And against countless advice from opposition parties, civil society, academia and religious institutions to use the existing voter register for the upcoming elections - particularly at a time when infections, critical cases and fatality rates keep soaring – the EC has announced that it is starting the registration process.
Clearly, the easing of the restrictions could not have been based on science and data on public health and the COVID-19 trend; but, rather, on economics and politics - failing the WHO test. Yet, pandemic history teaches that when the easing of restrictions is not informed by science and data – but by politics and economics – public health and lives are endangered by the further increase in infection rates, critical cases and fatalities, as is the case now.
Michael Abbey is a public policy, migration and international trade law expert and programme coordinator at the FES-Ghana Office.