Elizabeth Ohene

It was almost an anti-climax when the announcement finally came that a case of Coronavirus, COVID-19, had been confirmed in Ghana.

The charitable way of looking at it would be that many people felt it was inevitable that the virus would get to Ghana, as someone once famously said about mosquitoes, they don’t require visas to enter the country. Then there were those who appeared to be willing the virus to get into Ghana as part of a self-fulfilling prophecy that will show Ghana as unprepared and backward.

I am not sure which scenario is the more difficult one really, waiting everyday for one bit of fake news after another to be disproved, or having to face the current reality of six confirmed cases.

Dealing with it

Now that we are in the midst of it, the important thing would be how we deal with the crisis. Three different styles of combating the crisis have emerged. The Chinese, the South Korean and the Italian methods of tackling the problem with differing results.

I don’t think there is a How To book that we can purchase to help us here in Ghana. Those who know about these matters say the difference in the methods lies in what we might call the national character of the people.

In South Korea, it was individual self-discipline, in Italy, it started with their well-known laissez-faire attitude and in China, it was conformity and regimentation.

Seoul’s handling of the outbreak – involving a highly coordinated government response that has emphasised transparency and relied heavily on public cooperation in place of hardline measures such as lockdowns — has been less dramatic and is increasingly viewed by public health experts as a model to emulate.

South Korea has not restricted people’s movements — not even in Daegu, the South-eastern city at the centre of the country’s outbreak. Instead, authorities have focused mandatory quarantine on infected patients and those with whom they have come into close contact while advising the public to stay indoors, avoid public events, wear masks and practise good hygiene.

They have avoided the citywide lockdowns and yet with about 8,000 confirmed cases and more than 65 deaths, it was until recently, the country with the most confirmed cases outside China — but South Korea has since emerged as a source of inspiration and hope for authorities as its infection rate falls without citywide lockdowns such as China and Italy.

What method?

So, what method can we in Ghana adopt? I know what most of us would prefer. We would prefer a solution based on reckless optimism founded on a belief that God so loved Ghana that the virus would not enter our country and if it does, it would not thrive, and each of us would be protected on an individual basis.

I am starting from the sensible rules that the Ministry of Health (MoH) and the experts have drawn up to guide us all survive these uncertain times. Nothing dramatic at first sight, I would say, until you start trying to live by the rules.

I find the frequent handwashing is not a chore at all, and it makes me feel good about myself.

Now, I wash my hands meticulously and for a long time, the way doctors and nurses wash their hands and all the way to my elbows.

It turns out it is the injunction not to touch my face that is proving to be difficult as I hadn’t realised that I am always touching my face.

I have no idea why my hand goes to cover my lips so often, and it is turning out to be quite a job trying to keep my hands away from my face.

But that is nothing compared to trying to change the habits of a people or what they imagine to be a defining characteristic.

Don’t shake hands, we have been told. Sounds simple enough, but not in real life. A lot of people are making an effort and that is how we now have the fist bump, the elbow smooch, the shoulder rub and even the leg kick.

Some people are offering their open hands for handshakes simply out of habit, once you decline the offer, they withdraw the hand and that is the end of the matter.

But there are many people who seem to think that handshaking is a fundamental human right and they are determined to shake hands.

Luckily for all of us, you need two people to be able to shake hands and, therefore, when someone tells you he or she is protected by the blood of Jesus or the fetish and, therefore, can shake hands without any danger, you can decline the offer.

My view is that it is not the time to test the strength of our faith in the supernatural powers. We should concentrate on the practical things that are within our control.

It is not the time for people to insist on individual preferences and beliefs because individual behaviour affects the general public.

I am not shaking hands.

I am bowing from the stipulated one and a half metres away and that should be as good as the firmest handshake or the warmest embrace.

If you come to my home and you are asked to wash your hands or use the sanitiser before you enter the study, it is not a statement on how we rate your personal hygiene, we are trying to protect you and our household.

Lessons

By the time this nightmare is over, I suspect we would all have learnt some important lessons that would stay on with us.

Handwashing might well become an ingrained habit that we would carry with us.

Soap, straightforward unadorned soap, would reclaim its proper status as the cleaning agent in homes and we would not fall for the unnecessarily expensive, fancy perfumed soaps that have taken over the shops.

I am expecting we would go back to the old days of burying within two to three days and then have a funeral ceremony a few weeks later. That ceremony will change if the family doesn’t have to sit and receive handshakes for days on end.

If we could guarantee clean and sanitised hands, we could shake hands throughout this pandemic, but it would take only one infected hand to start a chain of infections. Pandemics tend to expose societies for their weaknesses and strengths.

The Italians took the COVID-19 in their normal laissez-faire manner and have been forced into dramatic lockdowns.

The Chinese went into their regimentation and conformity mode and appear to have turned the corner.

The South Koreans relied on their self-discipline and obedience of rules to defeat the problem.

I know I wouldn’t want to be in the USA when faced with a pandemic, COVID-19 is a public health issue and the Americans don’t believe in public health.

If Ghanaians want to pray and go about their businesses as usual, we shall have a hard time, but a bit of self-discipline, a bit of obedience of the rules and we shall make it through.