Following the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Ghana, workplaces will be expected to adjust their daily architecture to mitigate the risk of contamination. With the economic considerations in mind and potential business disruptions, employers will be expected to put in place practical steps to protect their employees from the spread of the virus.
Even before the virus was detected in Ghana, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had advised employers to begin preventive measures. One would argue that some of these measures need not have required a pandemic; like ensuring workplaces are clean and hygienic.
Employers have been encouraged to promote regular and thorough hand-washing by employees with visual messages, among others. When things get dicey, like an employee developing a cough or runny nose, employers are supposed to have face mask readily available for such persons as immediate measures as well as closed bins for hygienically disposing of them.
There are other measures that WHO details on its website and it's very useful advice… for the share of our workforce in the formal sector.
It is a well-known fact that most of our workforce is informally employed. Recent figures have been hard to come by but in 2014, the Ghana Statistical Service estimated that 86.1 percent of all employment was found in the informal economy ; 90.9 percent of women and 81 percent of men.
WHO can be forgiven for the broad strokes of its advice to workplaces. But by now, our government needed to have put in place more prudent advice for, among others, the traders who make a living in trotro stations, workers in grooming saloons, the vendors of tech products at Circle and the employees of your average wholesale store that are more patronised than outlets like Shoprite and Melcom.
The Ghana Living Standards Survey indicates that the informal sector is dominated by small to medium-scale businesses which include retail traders of varying scale, artisans, casual wage workers, street vendors etc. A lot of the members of this bracket have little to no education.
Experts globally have largely viewed the novel coronavirus as a dress rehearsal for a more deadly pandemic. There have been significant failures with this rehearsal for a variety of reasons. Greed for one; when you look at, say, the English Premier League's initial insistence on playing games over the weekend until high-profile persons contracted the disease forcing their hand.
In Ghana, the main problem has been the limitations of our sensitisation on the novel coronavirus. The government has been swearing by its preparedness plan for a while saying that there are jingles that have been prepared. But I only saw an ad for the first time this past weekend, of course, after news of the first cases actually broke. The current government is given a pat on the back for its digital media prowess but it was also crickets on that side of the media landscape until after the first cases were detected.
So far, the most eye-catching form of sensitisation I have seen has been the throwback to the over a decade old “for truly clean hands…” ad that made small rounds on social media. It ticks all the boxes for effective communication, especially in that it cuts into the local language. Then there was that clip of some school kids doing the Lord’s work with a recital-cum-choreographed message about protecting oneself amidst this pandemic.
There is no reason why the Information Ministry shouldn't be running multilingual ads every half hour across the most listened to stations in every district. Maybe that changes this week. I see that efforts on social media have picked up though. The First Lady features in a sensitisation on the novel coronavirus video and I see the graphics on cars from the State and Good Life making rounds. Baby steps.
The President notably addressed the nation again late last night on the novel coronavirus preparedness but once again, it felt like we were just paying lip service to prevention measures. Per his address, the provisions of hand sanitisers, running water and soap for washing of hands constitutes “enhanced hygiene procedures.”
As for markets and urban transport, the President directed the Ministry of Transport to work with the transport unions and private and public transport operators to ensure enhanced hygienic conditions in all vehicles and terminals.
The Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development has also now been directed to coordinate, with the Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies to improve hygiene in markets across the country.
But the fact remains that the lack of education, or lack of dynamism in this regard, has left the marginalised in our society, most of whom reside in the fraught informal sector, most vulnerable if the pandemic gets out of hand.
Some of the novel coronavirus prevention tips making the rounds may as well be Greek for some of the people who eventually stumble onto them. What do I do if I don't have running water, for example? I spent part of my childhood living on the University of Ghana's Agriculture Research Centre at Nmai Dzorn and there were a good three to four years with absolutely no running water and remaining years where it was intermittent. What is the alternative then? Could that be on a poster? Last I checked, running water meant water flowing through pipes.
As with other disease outbreaks and pandemics in the past, the sociological considerations have been just as fascinating as the epidemiological ones. In 2019, the world of cinema was defined by films about class. The most important one, South Korea's ‘Parasite’, argued that the tensions stemming from inequality were not just fatal but eroded the fabric of society.
The traders, hawkers and customers in Makola have no choice but to continue with their hand to mouth existence regardless of the threat. Their families must eat. In 2006, a Ghana Living Standards Survey showed that 46 percent of crop farmers and 17 percent of informal economy workers earn below the national daily minimum wage. In addition, Clara Osei-Boateng and Edward Ampratwum in their 2011 research on the Informal sector noted that 8 percent of public sector workers earned below the national minimum wage and 10 percent of private formal workers earned below the national minimum wage.
As some Ghanaians rush to stock up on sanitisers and disinfectants without blinking, the trotro driver’s mate rumbling tummy will quickly dispel such notions. A lot of people will not even be able to afford certain hygiene measures if they were delivered to their doorsteps. The question of certain interventions by the State on their behalf then becomes paramount. And we haven’t even begun to discuss the reported price hikes of sanitisers, which we should have been anticipated given the occurrences globally.
What should keep us up at night is the fact that these sections of the economy will reach into all spheres of society one way or the other. As a member of the middle class, I work in a nice air-conditioned office and drive to work about 60 percent of the time. But I share a lot of time and space with people in the informal sector. If the person sitting across from me only shopped online and patronsied the most hygienic supermarkets, he or she is still going to breath the same air and touch the same surfaces as me who shops at Tip Toe Lane and sits in trotro regularly.
Ghanaians in the informal sector are the most vulnerable and the State should be prioritising their safety. And maybe when the threat of the novel coronavirus pandemic dies down, we should realise that we should have been prioritising them all along.
The writer, Delali Adogla, works with Citi TV/Citi FM and citinewsroom.com