President Akufo-Addo wearing a nose mask

“Wearing of nose masks in public is gradually becoming a thing of the past in Accra”. This is a sarcastic post I made on Facebook on 25th April, 2021.

It was informed by a worrying observation I have made lately. Indeed, it is the case that, currently, if you wore a face mask in public, you were considered the odd one.

Whether as pedestrians, commuters, shoppers at malls or revelers at supposedly closed drinking spots, the number of people wearing masks in public within Accra, has reduced drastically. Putting it at only 1 in every 10 people wearing mask in public will not be an exaggeration.

I am deeply worried because apart from the aforementioned, there seems to be a general decline in the seriousness with which we observed the other Covid-19 safety protocols – washing of hands under running water, social distancing and sanitizing hands frequently, a few months ago.

It is now common to see Veronica buckets in front of shops and institutions without water or soap. Typically, tissue paper is finished and has not been replaced.

Social distancing is non-existent even in hospitals. The least said about funerals and churches, the better.

Worse still, some people consider sanitising one’s hand as required by the COVID-19 safety protocols, an inconvenience. I see people courteously declining gestures by security guards at the entrances of some shops, malls and banks to sanitise their hands.

These observations have got me thinking. I am wondering how we got here.  Is this the Ghana that was applauded by global institutions such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for effectively managing the pandemic? I ask myself. The follow-up question, again to myself, is what earned us the plaudits and how did we drop the ball so soon?

Some answers have dropped. Firstly, why we got to be praised.

Undoubtedly, the outbreak of the Corona Virus Disease, 2019 (COVID-19) since the latter part of 2019

in Wuhan China and its subsequent spread to other parts of the world has posed significant difficulties to most governments and their people. Ghana is not an exception.

The first case of the disease was recorded in Ghana in March, 2020. From the initial single digit figures, recorded, cases have increased greatly. Currently, the Ghana Health Service estimates that Ghana has recorded 93,898 cases, out of which 91,961 have recovered. Unfortunately, 785 persons have died. All 16 regions of the country have active cases and the end to this pandemic is nowhere in sight. The Government of Ghana therefore instituted various measures to curb the spread.

Partial lockdown

The government imposed a partial lockdown on the Greater Accra Region, Kasoa and Greater Kumasi in March, 2020 when the number of cases recorded was rising. This meant all economic activities in these areas had to cease.

Schools, from kindergarten to the university level, were closed. So were churches, night clubs, beaches and public eateries. Ghana’s borders – air, land and sea were all shut.

This was a very difficult decision but had to be taken to curb further spread of the disease. To ease the effect of this policy, government agencies were tasked to supply food, water and electricity to the populace at no cost.

Observing COVID-19 safety protocols

Ghanaians were advised through various public education platforms to observe the COVID-19 safety protocols. Radio jingles and TV Ads in various languages were broadcast throughout the country. Advertisers’ announcements and feature articles were published in the national newspapers in this regard.

With almost every resident of the affected areas locked down at home during the pendency of the edict, a captive audience was established. The messages from the Presidency and the Ghana Health Service as well as other stakeholders went to the target audience without any noise (distractions).

The behavioural change communication effort, no doubt, achieved significant success as the protocols became the way of life of the majority of residents of the affected areas.

Periodic updates

His Excellency, President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo updated the nation on a regular basis. During these updates, he informed the public about measures government is taking to prevent further spread of the disease as well as urge the public to continue to observe the protocols. So regular were these updates that the phrase, “Fellow Ghanaians” became the refrain on the lips of every Ghanaian. Textile manufacturing companies cashed-in on it naming one of their produce “Fellow Ghanaians”.

President Akufo-Addo practicalised the RACE (Research, Act, Communicate and Evaluate) principle in Crisis Communication much to the admiration of many a Communications practitioner. Every update had well researched information based on data and science. Measures taken to address any emerging situation were communicated during these updates.

To complement the President’s efforts, the Ministry of Information, working in collaboration with government agencies such as, the Ghana Health Service and the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (NMIMR) provided weekly updates on the situation and reiterated the need to observe the protocols.

Up scaling of testing and contact-tracing

Government made use of all medical facilities available in the country to test persons suspected of having contracted the disease. Persons with whom these suspected COVID-19 patients had come into contact with, were traced and tested.

Persons who were confirmed as having contracted the disease were quarantined (prevented from interacting with others) for two weeks. They were allowed to rejoin their families after they had recovered.

The NMIMR and the Kumasi Center for Collaborative Research in Tropical Medicine (KCCR) played a central role in this effort. Other laboratory facilities were not left out of this exercise. Facilities that initially did not have the capacity to undertake the testing were duly capacitated and they contributed immensely in speeding up the process of determining the number of active cases for further action.

Establishment of COVID-19 Trust Fund

A COVID-19 National Trust Fund was established to receive contributions from the public to assist in the welfare of the needy and the vulnerable in the country. Former Chief Justice, Sophia Akuffo chaired the seven-member Board of Trustees of the Fund.

Many public and private organisations used the opportunity to fulfil their Corporate Social Responsibility and donated generously towards this national cause.

Easing of restrictions

After about three weeks of the partial lockdown, the adverse effects were felt at the individual, corporate and national levels.

Individuals lost their jobs because corporate organizations could not pay salaries. Some companies shut down.

Ghana’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rate suffered a downturn. Instead of 6.8% growth originally projected for 2020, the actual growth rate as at the end of 2020 was 1.9%. Source- Ghana Covid-19 Alleviation and Revitalization of Enterprises Support (Cares) Obaatanpa Programme.

Many people in the informal sector became impoverished as they could not go out to ply their trades. Auto mechanics, some category of traders, masons, carpenters and other tradesmen, were the worst hit.

These far-reaching implications of the lock down resulted in the easing of some restrictions after three weeks. Ghana’s domestic and international airports were reopened. So were schools and churches.

All passengers on international flights to Ghana were however required to undergo mandatory COVID-19 tests at the Kotoka International Airport before being allowed entry into the country.

Churches were directed to operate at specific capacities for a period of not more than two hours at a time. Corporate organizations were advised to operate a shift system. Those capable of operating virtually were encouraged to do so. Public eateries were advised to operate only take away services.

These directives are still in force. And Public education on the need to observe the safety protocols has continued, albeit with less intensity.

Re-tightening of restrictions

In his 23rd update on the COVID-19 pandemic delivered on 31st January, 2021, the President had cause to reintroduce some of the restrictions that were eased as a result of the adverse impact on the economy. This was necessitated by the fact that daily recorded cases of COVID-19 continued to increase, likewise the death toll.

Thus, funerals, weddings, concerts, theatrical performances, and parties were banned. However, private burials, with 25 persons could be held with the observance of social distancing, hygiene and mask wearing protocols. Beaches, pubs and Ghana’s land and sea borders remain closed.

COVID-19 Vaccines

Realizing that a more permanent way of curbing the spread of COVID-19 is the introduction of vaccines, government of Ghana procured vaccines for the inoculation of the populace. The first consignment of 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in the country on 24th February, 2021 with much applause and some apprehension among a cross-section of the populace over possible side effects of the vaccine.

A National Vaccine Deployment Plan (vaccination campaign) commenced. It was estimated that about 20million persons will be vaccinated. The President took the first jab on 1st March, 2021 to encourage others to follow suit.

Pursuant to the roll out of the vaccination exercise, the country’s population was segmented into four groups. Group 1- persons most at risk and frontline state officials, Group 2- other essential service providers and the rest of the security agencies, Group 3 – all persons over 18 years except pregnant women and Group 4- pregnant women and persons under the age of 18 years. Members of Group 4 will be vaccinated when an appropriate vaccine is found.

Unfortunately, due to the scarcity of the vaccine globally, the inoculation exercise stalled. Persons who took their first jab and were expected to have received the second dose at the end of April, could not do so because the government could not get vaccines to procure.

Negotiation with the relevant vaccine manufacturing companies and other stakeholders continued unabated and on May 7, luck smiled at us. Three hundred and fifty thousand (350,000) doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, procured through the COVAX Facility, arrived safely in Ghana for the continuation of the inoculation exercise.

Consequently, the deployment of the second dose of vaccines commenced on May, 19. Thus, 360,000 persons in 43 districts received the second jab.

Mitigating the effects of COVID-19

As indicated earlier, the adverse effects of COVID-19 have been enormous. To mitigate the situation, the government introduced some programmes. Economic stimulus measures called the Coronavirus Alleviation Programme (CAP) is being implemented. Key initiatives under the CAP include;

●      GH¢579.5 million for COVID-19 Emergency Preparedness and Response Plan (EPRP),

●      GH¢200 million relief for provision of water and sanitation for households for three months,

●      GH¢1,028 million to subsidise use of electricity for three-months in households and businesses, among others.6

Government also introduced the GH¢100 billion Ghana CARES “Obaatanpa programme”, a three-and-a-half-year comprehensive programme to return the country to a sustained path of economic growth. Quite impressive if you ask me.

The threats

It is worth mentioning, that these feats were not achieved without criticism from stakeholders in various sectors of the economy. The closure of schools, churches, beaches and eateries was a sore point for owners of these economic ventures. Some of them are still struggling to find their feet and are thus not happy. Interestingly, reaction to the reopening of these ventures was not unanimous- some Ghanaians were opposed to it.

The opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) spared no opportunity to criticise the government’s approach to resolving some of the issues that emerged. Indeed, the NDC set up a parallel Covid-19 Technical Team that held media briefings to share views on measures announced by government.  In fact, when significant procurement decisions were taken by the government, the NDC called for accountability in the disbursement of public funds as part of efforts to curb the spread of the disease. They also called for donations made into the COVID-19 Trust Fund to be accounted for. Rightly so.

However, before the leading opposition party could formalize its call for accountability, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) took the wind out of its sail. The Community Development Alliance (CDA-Ghana) reported very damning allegations with regard to procurement activities during the peak of the pandemic.

The NGO, whose mission is to, “engender a Prosperous & Resilient Community, free from the Injustice of Corruption, Poverty, Disease and Gender Inequality”, disseminated the outcome of an assessment of corruption risks associated with procurements by the government during this period.

This assessment categorised Ghana’s COVID-19 corruption risks into two – Irregular Procurement Practices and Corruption Risks.

Titled, “Strengthening Covid-19 Accountability Mechanisms (SCAM)-Corruption Risk Assessment”, the report on the exercise, which was conducted between March and April, 2021, alleges several procurement breaches. Intriguing aspects of the Executive Summary of the report are reproduced below. It’s a bit detailed but that’s where the “meat” is. So indulge me:

The Irregular Procurement allegations-these are in relation to practices that violate national procurement laws.

●      Contracts awarded to four Ghanaian garment manufacturing companies to produce PPEs, nose masks, medical scrubs, hospital gowns and headgears, were without tender. Also, the companies were not registered with the Public Procurement Authority (PPA) at the time the contracts were awarded.

●      A $1m-contract awarded to two foreign companies namely; iQuent Technologies and Ascend Digital Solutions (registered in Jersey, a tax haven) for development of the COVID-19 Tracker App did not go through tender. The two companies were not legal persons in Ghana at the time the contract was awarded. They were not registered with the PPA.

●      Contracts worth GH¢60m for fumigation services and procurement of logistics such as; sanitizers, masks, dustbins, cleaning kits etc. for all districts by the Ministry of Local Government from its allocation under the District Assemblies Common Fund for the 2020 fiscal year, was mostly without tenders.

●      Contract awarded to Frontiers Healthcare Solution Services Limited to conduct Covid-19 antigen tests at the Kotoka International Airport was without tender. The company was not registered with PPA and not licenced by the Health Facilities Regulatory Authority (HEFRA).

●      Contract for supply of 18,000 Veronica Buckets; 800,000 pieces of 200-millilitre sanitizers; 36,000 rolls of tissue paper; 36,000 gallons of liquid soap and 7,200 thermometer guns distributed to schools were opaque and without tender. It is unclear who the suppliers were and how much was spent in procuring these items.

●      Contract for provision of hot meals for 540,000 final year students, who sat for the 2020 WASSCE and BECE examinations and their teachers for three weeks, was without full disclosure. It is unclear who were awarded these contracts, from which fund the contracts were awarded and whether the contracts went through the proper procurement processes.

●      Contract for nation-wide disinfection and fumigation of over 464 markets was awarded to Zoomlion on sole source basis. This is in addition to another contract by the Ministry of Education and the Ghana Education Service to disinfect and fumigate over 850 High Schools across Ghana and 3,700 schools in the Greater Accra region.

Corruption Risk- Theseindicate that there has been substantial breaches of anti-corruption laws, regulations, codes and international conventions.

●      Contract awarded for free food during the partial lockdown in Greater Accra and Greater Kumasi is perhaps the biggest red flag in the whole COVID-19 spending saga. There are doubts over the exact number of people fed, the period of the intervention, the way caterers were contracted and the unit cost of the food packages. The Government of Ghana (GoG) has not helped the situation by giving conflicting figures and accounts. GHc42million was spent on hot meals during the period without any proper tendering or documentation.

●      An amount of GHc2million was allocated to transport Frontline Heath Workers during the partial lockdown in Accra. An amount GHc1, 622,000 is unaccounted for.

●      It is unclear how $7.4m earmarked for community engagement and risk communication – from an amount of $35m released by the World Bank, was spent.

●      A National Information Contact Center (NICC) at the Accra Digital Center was set-up to provide information on COVID-19 and related matters but it is unclear how much GoG spent on that set-up.

●      An amount of $12.7m was earmarked for containment, isolation and treatment – from an amount of $35m released by the World Bank. GoG spent $2,163million on 16 hotels and guest houses during the initial arrival of air travel passengers. There appears to be unspent funds of $8.6million within this allocation that needs further investigation.

●      The office of the Administrator of the Common Fund released GH¢166,280.62 each to the 260 districts towards the fight against the pandemic. No district has accounted to the people for how this money was spent.

●      There appears to be an issue with $1.2million meant for the payment of 900 contact-tracers employed by the Ghana Health Service to work on case detection, contact-tracing and reporting. Six hundred of these employees dropped out later due to various grievances, chiefly the erratic payment of their daily allowance of $25 (GH¢150.00).

A very curious one:

●      The PPA Act, 2003 (Act 663) vests power in the Minister of Finance to DIRECT the use of a different procurement procedure where (HE) the Minister, determines that it is in the ‘national interest to do so’ (i.e. a scenario where the nation attaches high value, returns, benefit and consideration to the matter in question). Where the Minister makes such a determination, the procurement method shall be published in the Ghana Gazette. GoG appears to have relied on this provision in awarding almost all the contracts during the pandemic.

Very revealing isn’t it? Or as our London friends will say, ain’it? The final risk listed is like giving an open cheque to the Minister of Finance to use our money anyhow he wants. Is that what the drafters of the law intended? Although that is what the letter of the law seems to say. I hope that is not what the spirit of the law is.

Somehow, government’s response to these allegations have not been as expected by most corruption watchers. Considering the incriminatory nature of the allegations, one would have expected a paragraph by paragraph response from, especially the Ministry of Information. This has not been the case, unless I missed it. I have searched but cannot find any. 

The most plausible reason that the Minister of Health, Kwaku Agyemang Manu could offer when quizzed about the Frontiers Healthcare Solution Services Limited deal, in particular, during his vetting by the Appointments Committee of Parliament, was; “we were not in normal times”. His former Deputy, Dr. Bernard Okoe-Boye also repeated this phrase when Kojo Yankson asked him the same question about the Frontiers transaction on the Super Morning Show on Joy 99.7FM.

The uncharacteristic manner the government reacted to the allegations of corruption leveled by CDA-Ghana, leaves a sour taste in the mouth of anti-corruption crusaders. The prevailing perception as regards this matter is, as we say in Ghana, “things happened”.

Now, to how we dropped the ball so soon.

Many factors account for this. Notably; fear mongering, 2020 election campaign rallies, lull in updates by the President, laxity in enforcement of safety protocols and individuals with breathing challenges upon wearing the nose mask.

Fear mongering

The announcement of the detection of COVID-19 infected persons within Ghana invoked fear in most Ghanaians. However, there were a few of us who held the strange view that it was a hoax. Proponents of this school of thought contended that the government wanted to access funds allocated by the WHO for the eradication of the disease, hence the announcement was to further this agenda.

Those who held this view did not and have still not changed their minds. They refuse to observe the safety protocols and mock those of us who do.

Thus, the emergence of a public campaign dissuading people from taking the COVID-19 vaccination because of possible side effects, fit very well into their beliefs. The message preached by these detractors of the government was that the vaccine could prove deadly as its efficacy cannot be guaranteed. Although the Food and Drugs Authority did what it could to reassure the populace about the effectiveness of the vaccine to prevent one from contracting the disease, the “doubting Thomases” were not swayed.

A conspiracy theory to the effect that the vaccines are being used by the west to wipe out the black race, did not help matters.

Clearly, the sponsors of this campaign succeeded in casting doubts in the minds of some persons, who have subsequently vowed not to take the jab. They will also not observe the safety protocols. As alluded to earlier, COVID-19 to them, is a hoax.

Political campaign rallies

What seemed to be an unofficial suspension of COVID-19 restrictions in Ghana during the political campaigns that heralded the 2020 Presidential and Parliamentary elections, cannot go without mention.

The holding of massive campaign rallies by all the political parties, notably the NPP and NDC, attended by hundreds of non-nose –mask- wearing people, without regard to social distancing, created the impression that COVID-19 was actually a hoax. Since then, many people have let their guards down with respect to the safety protocols.

Lull in Presidential updates

From 31st January, 2021, the next time the President updated the nation on the fight against COVID 19 was on the 28th of February, close to a month. This was unprecedented.

The next update took place on 16th May, 2021, about two months, two weeks after the last address. The only “logical” impression it created was that we are back to normal times.

Laxity in enforcement of safety protocols

During the period, when people found in town without their nose masks, were made, by the Police, to sweep the streets and scrub gutters, everyone put on their nose masks in public. At the least, people put it beneath their chins.

In fact, 961 persons who failed to wear nose masks contrary to the directive by the President, were arrested by the Police.

I remember hearing the Director of Public Affairs of the Ghana Police Service, Sheila Abayie-Buckman, define “Public” to include the inside of a private car. Thus, individuals driving their own cars alone, were required to wear nose masks.

Clearly, when the enforcement stopped, the wearing of nose masks stopped.

Breathing difficulties

There are some individuals who complain of breathing difficulties when they wear the masks. For these people, the prevalence of all the factors aforementioned, gives them the freedom not to wear the nose masks.

From the foregoing, it is evident that the government of Ghana is doing so well in its attempt to effectively manage the COVID-19 pandemic. However, among others, its reaction to the allegations of corruption leveled by CDA-Ghana, has taken some shine away from an otherwise sterling performance. The lax enforcement of the COVID-19 safety protocols has also not been helpful.

In concluding this piece, it is critical to reiterate that COVID-19 is still plaguing some countries. That a second wave has erupted in India, killing hundreds of their citizens on a daily basis is evidence. With our airports open and incidence of fake COVID-19 test results being reported at the Kotoka International Airport, we are definitely not out of the woods.

The need for us to revert to observing the COVID-19 protocols religiously, can therefore not be over-emphasised.

The assurance though is in the words of the President, ‘this too shall pass’. I believe it shall, because no condition is permanent.

Moi Moi- That’s goodbye in Finnish.