The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all aspects of our lives. It has greatly changed our social life, making us adopt some anti-social measures hitherto were seen as disrespectful and a sign of arrogance and pride. You cannot shake somebody’s hand or give a loving hug, even coughing and sneezing has become a sacred act that cannot be done normally in public without being suspected of carrying the COVID-19 virus.
These were things we used to do normally to the extent that people around you happily endorse your sneeze with a resounding ‘blessings’, but not anymore, rather, people will start moving away from you.
As part of measures to contain the escalation of the viral infection, countries have enforced social distancing and self-quarantining, which the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends. Johns Hopkins Medicine defines social distancing as deliberately increasing physical space between people to avoid spreading of illness. It demands a physical space of at least six feet from other people to reduce the chance of being infected with COVID-19.
Examples of social distance practices are cancelling large meetings, working from home instead of going to the office, closing of schools and religious gatherings. These social distancing measures is to help stop or slow down the spread of the virus to afford health care workers ample time to readily care for the already infected over time.
Self-quarantine on other hand involve the isolation of people who have been exposed to or are in epicentres of the coronavirus and are at risk for coming down with COVID-19. Health experts usually recommend a minimum of two weeks in self-quarantine for them to know whether or not exposed persons will test positive and be contagious to others. Some self-quarantine measures include but not limited to staying at home, not having visitors, staying at least six feet away from other people in your household, not sharing things like towels, utensils and cutlery.
In Ghana, in an effort to practice social distancing, His Excellency the president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo on Sunday, March 15, 2020 directed the closure of all universities, Senior High Schools and basic schools and also placed a ban on church activities, funerals, sporting events, festivals and all public gatherings. This took effect on Monday, March 16, 2020. While it was disappointing to hear the cancellation of church activities and other public gatherings, there is a strong public health reason for these measures.
How effective is social distance and self-quarantine practiced in our Ghanaian setting vis-a-vis the reality in our communities?
Typical Ghanaian communities have families living in shared accommodation, what is known locally as ‘compound houses.’ ‘Compound houses’ usually have 8-15 rooms with families of about 5-7 in each of the room. Some compound houses are storey building which takes even more tenants. If the ‘compound house’ has 10 rooms with 5 families in each, then there will be 50 people living in one house with usually one toilet, a kitchen and one bathroom serving all the 50 occupants.
It is easy to practice social distancing when living in a ‘self-contained’ apartment with everything enclosed. But how are people in a ‘compound house’ sharing the same kitchen, toilet and bath expected to effectively practice social distancing?
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations for self-quarantining and social distancing to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus include not sharing toilets and bathrooms, and even the same bed if they can. But can this apply to communities that have only one public toilet and one source of water; a community tap or borehole where the whole community gather in their numbers to access a basic necessity of life. Also there are a lot of families who not by choice but by circumstance share a single room, clothes, spoons, and even share sponge and towel (it may sound far-fetched but that is the reality). Social distancing and self-quarantining will sound unrealistic and absurd to people in these situations. This is the unfortunate plight of many Ghanaians forced to live on the margins of our societies.
Access to portable water in most communities is a challenge, even it is so in some elite communities, yet we are told to wash our hands regularly.
Additionally, most of our cities have slums and informal settlements as part of physical infrastructure. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, these slums were overcrowded and lacked some basic social amenities like portable water and toilet facilities. Inhabitants of slums have to join long queues to respond to nature’s call or even to bath, which require significant amount of time and contact that could potentially expose more people to the coronavirus. All these slums are located in cities and if social distancing cannot be practiced, then not only are they at risk of the coronavirus but also pose danger to all in the cities.
Think of the slums in Chorkor, Fadama, Ashiaman, Jamestown, New Takoradi and Suame Magazine. All these places are densely populated with little to no space between the houses, and anybody who knows any of these places can associate with this. You have to almost pass through someone’s house to get to yours. Can social distancing be practiced effectively in these slums?
Trying even to share food and relief items in these slums and communities almost cannot be done under strict social distancing protocol.
We all know the effectiveness of social distancing in the typical ‘compound houses’ and slums is a myth.
With our markets, most of the sellers are overcrowded with some selling even on the streets. Instead of being in their separate sheds or stores, most market women are closely parked that, it is absolutely impossible to practice the six meters social distancing protocol. Trying to do it means majority will have to be sent home from the market. The question is who should go and who should stay and sell? Human traffic (buyers) is also high that it will be easier counting the stars on a winter night than counting the people your body touches.
It is required in social distancing that one stays and ‘work from home.’ How practical is this in our communities? How many have jobs that they can ‘work from home’? And how many jobs can be done from home? A number of Ghanaians are petty traders and casual workers. If your only means of livelihood is selling plantain chips or second-hand clothes, how do you ‘work from home’ on the internet?
Health experts say the virus has not reached epic proportions in our part of the world and we hope it never does. No one wishes the virus to spread into our communities, but it is highly recommended that those in power and health experts should develop alternative solutions looking at the peculiar situations above.
Social distancing and self-quarantining could be practiced in America, China and Europe where their societies are developed and well organised, but the sad reality is, in Ghana, it is a privilege only a few can afford.