The pandemic’s health crisis is spilling over into the economy and politics of Ghana.
By Alyanna Gallo, Circle of Blue
When Covid-19 infiltrated the West African countries of Nigeria, Liberia, and Burkina Faso in early March, Ghanaians wondered, were they next?
Many did not expect to be. Unlike its neighbors, Ghana had been largely spared from past pandemics like Ebola. That health crisis in 2014-15 had crippled Liberia and Guinea, recounted Vida Duti, who is the country director for IRC Ghana. Ghanaians began to hope that history would repeat itself and the new coronavirus would never cross into their country.
That hope was shattered on March 12, when the government of Ghana confirmed the country’s first two cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Rumors began to circulate that the virus had arrived from overseas with diplomatic officers who had returned to the embassies.
“Many thought that it was a traveler’s disease,” Duti told Circle of Blue, adding that the virus gave some Ghanaians a false sense of security if they had not traveled abroad.
Today, almost all 16 regions of Ghana have reported confirmed cases of Covid-19. With 21,968 confirmed cases and 129 deaths as of July 8, the country is seeing an increase of cases and wider community spread.
“Now the reality is with us,” Duti said.
With the virus now being spread from person to person, the country faces what Duti calls “a triple edged problem.” By this she means a health crisis that is leading to an economic slowdown and political confrontation.
Although the government has imposed strict regulations to contain the virus — including mandatory social distancing and requiring masks in public spaces — following the rules has proved more difficult. The majority of the population lives in overcrowded urban areas and relies on daily wages in order to make a living. There are few work-from-home options. Isolation is often impossible.
Acknowledging the burgeoning economic crisis for unemployed workers, the national government announced this spring that it would provide free water to Ghana’s residents from April to June and pay their water bills. The government also invested in more handwashing facilities in public places and tanker services to deliver water to places with limited facilities.
Some of that aid has already run out, though. Effective July 1, according to a statement issued by the Ghana Water Company Limited, there will be no more free water, and Ghanaians will again pay their water bills.
It was a welcome lifeline while it lasted, but in some ways it fell short.
Many people in the country still do not have adequate water, sanitation, and handwashing resources. According to the charity WaterAid, approximately 5.4 million people in Ghana — about one of every five people in the country — do not have access to clean water.
“This does not resolve the problem of the 18 percent of the population that does not have access to water at all,” Duti said, referring to the government’s water bill assistance, adding that these communities are not connected to the main water supply and tanker trucks are unlikely to reach remote regions.
Sanitation is even worse. Eight out of 10 people (23 million) do not have proper toilets and waste treatment.
As Covid-19 cases rise across the country, organizations like IRC Ghana are driving the public health response.
IRC Ghana is a non-profit organization that focuses on strengthening water, sanitation, and hygiene. It also advocates at both the national and district level for more financial and political support for these services, known collectively as WASH.
As part of a coordinated response to the pandemic in collaboration with national and district government partners, the IRC Ghana team, which includes Duti and water expert Jeremiah Atengdem, has focused its efforts on hygiene awareness campaigns that promote proper handwashing with soap. Duti and Atengdem agree that widespread adoption of handwashing and other hygienic practices are crucial for combating the spread of the coronavirus.
The most vulnerable individuals live in peri-urban and slum areas, which are the most densely populated areas of the country. In these districts access to water is limited, handwashing is rare, and open defecation is common. Overcrowding makes it virtually impossible to maintain physical distance. Conditions are already unhealthy. Adding coronavirus into the mix could prove to be a deadly combination.
“We need to have more enduring permanent solutions,” Duti said.
If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it is the recognition of the health value of basic hygiene and handwashing, which tend to be neglected in government budgets. “The awareness of hygiene, we could not have had that,” Duti said.
According to Duti, the reported number of cases of water-related diseases in hospitals in Ghana has dropped. She ventured that the decline is possibly due to increased public attention directed towards hygiene.
IRC hopes to take advantage of the heightened interest to advocate for more government resources.
Alyanna is a graduate student at Binghamton University in New York pursuing a Masters degree in Biomedical Anthropology. Her academic background has centered around public health issues and epidemiology. At Circle of Blue, her reporting focuses primarily on the impact of COVID-19 on water access and hygiene internationally, exploring contemporary social, political, and economic issues relating to water.