Opinion

Elizabeth Ohene: When experts disagree

Almost six months into the arrival of Covid-19 in our country, we can probably make some general statements about how the virus has fared in our midst.

Before the arrival of the first cases and soon after that, most people feared the worst. A disease was coming that had no cure. We saw what was happening in Italy and the daily death figures.

All the experts said once the virus hit Africa, the devastation would be total.

If the rich nations of the world were faring so badly, the thinking was that the virus in Africa would spell catastrophe. There would be dead bodies on the streets and our already shaky health service would collapse.

I hesitate to make any judgement calls at this moment because we are still dealing very much in the unknown and the virus has proved to be so unpredictable.

The experts have revised their opinions many times and that makes all of us nervous. We are not used to experts and scientists changing their minds.

They might revise their opinions in their journals and at their meetings and in their specialist journals, but to us the public, we prefer to think of our doctors and scientists as knowing all there is to know about everything that might ail us.

Experts

But in dealing with this pandemic, we have seen the experts publicly bickering and disagreeing with each other.

Remember how long it took for them to decide how the disease was spread? I am not sure what the current expert opinion is. If experts say “to the best of their understanding”, I am left scratching my head. But that is the best we have.

To the best of their understanding, the virus is primarily spread through contact and respiratory droplets. Then they add that “under some circumstances, airborne transmission may occur in indoor crowded, poorly ventilated settings”.

I got terribly confused recently when they started saying that the virus might not survive on surfaces for long periods as had been previously feared.

I took the view I would stick to the original expert opinion and continue to sanitise the railings on the stairs, the doorknobs, chairs and table tops, and leave the experts to argue among themselves about the length of time the virus remains active on surfaces.

Since we were told this was a new disease, I could understand that there wasn’t yet a known cure. I was ready to accept that there would be a lot of people claiming miracle cures.

When the President of Madagascar started screaming about his miracle concoction, I was ready to keep my smile to myself and wish him well, but I was taken aback completely by the sheer number of ‘progressives’ and educated people in this country who were tearing our government apart for not sending for planeloads.

I read on various platforms how if only we had Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah during this crisis and he would have made sure this truly African concoction was made available to save Africans. I read these same progressives tell us the African Union (AU) should take on the fight against the World Health Organisation (WHO) to accept the Madagascar miracle cure.

Concoction

I have not seen a single one of these expert progressives admit they might have got it wrong when Andry Rajoelina’s concoction was showed up to be as potent against the coronavirus as my light soup, with Madagascar COVID cases quadrupling in a month.

I have read various damnations of our Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) for not approving various herbal concoctions brought by our medicine men. We were told all the Coronavirus Rapid Test Kits brought to the FDA should have been approved if those in charge were progressives and we would be saving millions of dollars being used to import Test Kits from abroad.

I could take these battles, because if you have been around for as long as I have been, you would know that all our problems come from our not adopting something called African mentality.

But I was certainly not prepared for the open warfare among the medical community. We were brought up to have the greatest reverence for anyone in a white coat, with a stethoscope around the neck.

Fights

For the past six months we have witnessed the most ignoble fights among medical doctors.

One group of people in white coats, with stethoscopes around their necks tell us hydroxychloroquine has been curing COVID patients. Then another group of doctors tell us that drug does nothing for COVID.

We know how malaria is manifested, even if some of us are still not a hundred per cent sure that it is transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito.

Now, here is a disease that, according to the experts, I can have and spread to other people and still not be aware that I have the disease. The concept of being asymptomatic hasn’t got a translation in Twi or Ewe or Ga or Hausa.

At the beginning of the outbreak, they told us young people were not at great risk and the elderly were most at risk, and would most likely die if they contracted the disease. Now, we know some very old people have had COVID and are walking around, none the worse for their experience and some young people did not survive.

Deaths

So far, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of us dying from COVID-19. (And each time I say, or write, or think that, I touch wood and cross all my fingers). We are definitely not dying at the rates that were predicted.

There have been 261 COVID deaths as at Monday, August 23. The feeling seems to be that since we are not dying as much as had been predicted, we could behave as though we have been over the worst of it and behave as though things were back to normal.

Two weekends ago, I went to Abutia. Once we went past Michel Camp on the road going towards Akosombo, it was difficult to see anyone with a mask.

In Kpong, I think I saw three people with masks among the crowds along the streets both on the outward and inward journeys. Those I spoke to were carrying masks but did not think it was necessary to wear them.

This past weekend, I was in Cape Coast. At functions, people wore masks; on the streets, very few people wore masks and there was no social distancing. Along the route in Mankessim, nobody wore masks, in Budumburam, nobody wore masks.

Maybe the experts should stop expressing doubts and then we shall listen. The campaign season is upon us.

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The writer was the Editor of BBC Focus on Africa and Daily Graphic as well as a former Education Minister