Coronavirus is spreading fast. So far, it has spread to almost every nation on earth. By today’s count, more than 200,000 people have been infected since it was first detected in mid-December 2019. Coronavirus is a real danger because it is killing real people. So far, more than 8000 of those who have been infected have died from the disease which shows symptoms of fever, tiredness, and dry cough.
Some infected persons also showed signs of muscle pain, difficulty breathing, diarrhoea, and nausea. The bottom-line, however, is that coronavirus disease is leaving homes broken, families separated, people afraid, and nations confused. Many countries have closed the borders and are implementing emergency measures. Politicians and philanthropists are throwing money at the disease without clearly knowing how the money will be spent. Because we just want it to go away.
In Ghana, we have identified seven infected persons, and no one has died yet. The Health Service has recommended actions to limit the spread of the disease. Further, the President has outlined emergency measures to ensure limited spread. One of the key measures is to limit people interacting with each other. This is what is referred to as social distancing.
Some of the presidential directives to ensure social distance include closing schools, prohibiting large gatherings, and limiting person-to-person contacts in all aspects of human activity. When properly observed, social distance can greatly reduce the risk of transmission. We can beat coronavirus. China has done it and we can do it.
A practical example of social distance is the lockdown (community quarantine) of the Wuhan province in China when the epidemic in China was at its peak. The way the Chinese did it was to use technology and state authority and public resources to enforce the ‘lockdown’ in the epicentre of the disease by keeping people in their homes and limiting potential for spread. So, we know that social distancing works. The opposite leads to an exponential rise in the infection as we have seen in Italy. Now we see the USA and most of Europe following a similar pathway. But will social distance work in our particular context?
The only way social distance will work in a place like Ghana is to ensure strict and unusual enforcement. Here are the reasons why. We cannot assume that everyone in Ghana has heard about the coronavirus pandemic. Even when they do, not everyone has the luxury to stay at home without external support. We cannot assume that everyone who has heard knows and understands how COVID-19 spreads.
We already know that there are many people who do not have a realistic sense of risk perception for the disease. I have heard several ‘educated’ people say that the disease cannot affect Africans. Others say, they can protect themselves by drinking alcohol. By the way, several people have already died trying to prevent coronavirus using alcohol therapy in Iran. Typically, Ghanaians are easy-going people. We will only follow the directives from the president when we are made to do it. Someway somehow. But it will not just happen.
It is gratifying to see many churches, Universities, and schools closing or being suspended. Several large events and conferences have also been canceled. The worry, however, is that the rest of the process of social distancing has been left to the discretion of the population. This evening, the WHO has called on African leaders to step up the local response.
There is a lot to step up in Ghana. We closed schools but the school pupils and students home playing around and selling ‘pure’ all over the neighbourhoods and on the streets, making nonsense of the intention behind the closure. Many businesses remain open and operating as if there is nothing at stake, promoting congregations that can be avoided. People are going around greeting each other and touching without observing the recommended distance.
Clearly, there is a social, economic, and cultural cost to social distancing. But the potential cost of not doing it correctly maybe even greater. There is concern that we are waiting too long until the disease reaches its peak before we start scrambling for a solution. Especially since we do not have limitless resources for testing, quarantine and personnel. That kind of chaos, like we are seeing in Europe is avoidable.
In the past 24 hours, the USA government has issued orders to limit groups getting together to 10 persons, down from 50 (the directive on Sunday). There is a lesson there for us to learn. There is still time for the government to step up enforcement of social distancing in Ghana. If we get it right, we can limit the spread of the infection and will be better for it.