Written by Nicole Gerard by interviewing Fern's national partners.
On 20 April 2020, the partial lockdown imposed three weeks earlier in Accra, Tema and Kumasi was eased, despite an acceleration of COVID-19 cases. At the time of writing (11 July 2020) Ghana has some 23,834 confirmed cases, up from 12,590 confirmed cases on 18 June. Fern’s partners are extremely concerned.
“We are now entering the exponential phase of COVID-19, with 1000+ new infections being reported each week – and yet the government has lifted restrictions by permitting meetings, religious services, conferences and workshops of up to 100 people. Previously only groups of up to 25 people could gather, mostly to bury loved ones. It does not make sense, cases of COVID are still on the rise,” says Albert Katako of Civic Response. “We should be making measures stricter.”
However, the situation in Ghana is complex, Obed Owusu-Addai of EcoCare Ghana highlights that,” Almost 70% of Ghana’s economy is informal and people need to move every day so that they can afford to buy food.”
Certain precautions remain obligatory – wearing masks in public, keeping two-metre distances in gatherings – but some fear that the current administration’s decision to relax restrictions may be based less on science than on approaching elections, encouraging voter registration and creating the perception of normalcy before -election. It is important to observe, however, that organisations and offices are taking safety precautions seriously: offices have labels boldly in front of their offices saying “no face mask, no entry”. In addition, your temperature would be taken to ensure you do not have a fever, after which you would go through the hand washing and hand sanitization process.
“When lockdown was removed, people went out and partied in jubilation. Many people do not realise that their safety – our safety, has become our personal responsibility. Those who do realise wear masks, but others are going about life as if nothing has happened,” says Katako.
At the outset of the pandemic, the government issued certain safety messages across media; these continue to run, as do regular updates of infection and recovery rates and areas where cases are concentrated, reminding Ghanaians of the situation. Government authorities have fumigated markets and schools; and provided public hospitals and clinics with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). One area that must be improved, however, is enforcement of protective measures.
Kafui Denkabe, of Civic Response, says. “We could help distribute information about how to wear a mask – people wear them because if not they can be arrested and could receive a fine or prison sentence, or both − but they do not wear them in a protective manner. We could explain you are protecting others more than yourself. Instead, even wearing a mask incorrectly, people are feeling comfortable, safe. At some level that is a kind of deception.”
Informally, creative efforts are being engaged to protect the population.
Civil Society Organisations have contributed to the national COVID-19 fund, and distributed PPE to their communities without waiting for government assistance. NGOs have mobilised resources and gone out to Indigenous communities to distribute information, as well as masks, sanitising gels and soap; and buckets for handwashing. To carry out such initiatives under lockdown, government permission was sought, and given. International NGOs have also donated to the COVID-19 fund. As part of collaborative efforts to combat the disease, the private sector provides their employees with PPE, advertising companies used billboards and other media to create safety awareness. These initiatives are valuable; however, coordination and harmonisation could be improved.
As 90 per cent of the infections are concentrated in Accra, even using existing networks such as those created under the Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Voluntary Partnership Agreement to provide assistance must be approached very cautiously. Katako says, “Going to the communities from Accra would be putting them at risk. We have to be mindful of this and act with circumspection, or our enthusiasm could create more problems. It is safer for such activities to be coordinated from the district level where infection rates are low.”
As concerned as they are by what they can see happening in Accra and other cities, Fern’s partners are also concerned by what they cannot see: in distant rural communities, where the perception appears to be that COVID-19 is an urban problem. As in Europe, however, when lockdown was announced, many city dwellers headed for their home villages, possibly bringing disease with them.
“The gap in education, and different levels of awareness shows up in the villages,” Elvis Oppong-Mensah, Civic Response, says. “In some cases, you may be pleasantly surprised to see a handwashing bucket in front of small shops– but then, on occasion, you notice that there is no soap. And are they aware of what the symptoms of COVID are?”
Colleagues working directly in communities report some COVID-19 cases. “But caution is required, because many of the communities we work in are very remote and have few medical facilities,” Oppong-Mensah explains. “Reporting cases would be a challenge, symptoms may be put down to other causes... The hope is that they live life in a more natural way, and their resistance will be higher.”
Last week, the World Health Organisation cautioned Ghana and some other countries about infection rates, and that’s good. But we would be happy to see the European Union (EU) use its ties, formal and informal, to give a strong word of caution, to say it is too early to lift the ban on gatherings of more than 25 people, to apply direct pressure and dialogue.”
On a very immediate level, NGOs hope that their funders will be understanding of the practical situation, and relax strict grant-reporting requirements and allow rollover of grants.
Although it is too early to assess the impact of the pandemic specifically on Ghana’s forests, there are reports from timber markets across the country that there is shortage of illegal wood. This is likely to be due to illegal operators’ inability to undertake activities during the COVID-19 era. Even if they can cut the trees, the high number of police checkpoints make them scared to transport them. Clashes between the Forestry Commission and illegal loggers were also reported in late June and during a multi-stakeholder webinar in May 2020, a representative of the timber industry reported that business was operating at 26 per cent. Despite this, all fiscal statutory requirements must be complied with as in normal times.
In the same webinar, stakeholders mentioned that they still hoped FLEGT licensing would take place before the end of 2020. The Ministry of Land and Natural Resources (MLNR) representative said that COVID efforts were affecting the MLNR’s ability to deal with the conversion of extant leases, the final hurdle between them and licensing.