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Opinions of Monday, 25 May 2020

Columnist: Quesi Haat

Coronavirus and the border closure; A government shedding its responsibilities

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The tales that will be left behind by this novel coronavirus (COVID-19) will be enormous; I am sure that put together, we can have another “12-Part Kyeiwaa-like” movie. This virus has shown how unique we are as a group of people. Unique I say because it has blatantly exposed the falsehood we have been living in, both citizens and leadership, for decades.

The false foundation on which we have established our society and continue to build on. It took this virus to show us the widening gap in our society: the poor, marginalised and forgotten lot on one side and the comfortable minority on the other side. It has also uncovered the breakdown of order and the lack of organisation in our society.

Essentially, this virus has proven to us the long-held view about how governance has become very centralised, insensitive and removed from the plight of the common Ghanaian. But these are broader issues for another day because today I want to lament and rant. I never assumed that a day would come when we will have a leadership that will shirk its responsibility to its citizens because they are outside of its jurisdiction.

The first instance was in the early days of the outbreak of this pandemic when Ghanaians caught up in the middle of this challenge requested the assistance of the Government of Ghana to return home. Then came the excuses that included statements like “China is best placed to manage the disease so stay there because we don’t want to import the virus” and a survey that suggested that citizens did not want to return.

To their credit our caring government sent kenkey, shito and others so that it citizens would continue to live among the spreading disease when several countries were evacuating their own. Amid all this we were still receiving travellers from all over the world. Leadership believed that surveillance was a well-thought-through strategy that could prevent the transmission of the disease among the general population. However, this same strategy was not applied to citizens requesting evacuation.

In late March, our president announced the shutdown of all borders to international travellers, citizens included. Again, the explanation was to stop the importation of cases so they can focus on contact tracing and surveillance. Since this announcement, there have been 2-week extensions, indefinite extensions and all the other extensions you can think about.

The banner has been to stop the importation of new cases. We are 2 months into this blockade of Ghanaian citizens from entering their country, yet we have seen other countries like the United States of America and United Kingdom evacuating their own from our land.

It is sad to note that there seems to be no plan from government for those caught up in this situation. Until a few weeks ago, thanks in part to the awareness created by Mr Okudzeto Ablakwa, Honourable Member for North Tongu, some consulates began issuing directives for those who would want to return. Let us make no mistake, these are not evacuations because the directives seem to suggest that citizens should be able to pay for the fare. As embarrassing as this part of the plan is, I consider it a fair compromise given the economic strength of our country.

Judging from the position of most people resident in Ghana, they seem very satisfied with this closure of all borders. I bear no grudge against them after all we are all citizens and thus entitled to our views. The concern is when people in the place of leadership are also absorbed and fuelling this superficial thought process; the assumption that every citizen returning is bringing in the virus.

We thus deceive ourselves when we act surprised about the stigmatisation being faced by individuals who have recovered from COVID-19. Our leadership in all their actions have not given anyone reason to think and act otherwise towards those who have recuperated.

We cannot fault the ordinary citizen for their avulsion of people who have recovered when those in the place of “supposed” knowledge and power continue to paint this picture: the firm resolve to shut out and ignore their responsibility for the protection of all citizens no matter where they find themselves because they “might” bring in the disease.

The government by this position has created an even bigger battle for itself. In addition to those who have recovered, there is the sense that anyone coming from outside the country is a carrier of the virus. This stigma is sure to affect treatment seeking behaviour as we struggle to contain the clusters we are facing locally. Leadership missed a great opportunity to show its citizens that the pandemic could be controlled and that they are up to the task of containing the virus and protecting them from it. As I write, the government has had to renege on its position in order to receive deportees from Kuwait.

I smile as I think about this: it had to take the negotiation of another government for us to take back our own. Every objective, critical and understanding Ghanaian should shudder at this situation where fear, the lack of capacity to plan and protect citizens everywhere in the world causes our leadership to make outrageous decisions.

So, going forward what is the plan? Because to date there seems to be no guideline and timeline for the reopening of our borders. We now have a likely situation where thousands of stranded citizens are going to be rushing in once the borders are open. Do we have the capacity to hold all of them in isolation when it would have been easier to have allowed them to trickle in as when they were done with their duties?

Assuming, touch wood, all the thousands that will one day have to come home are infected, do we have the health infrastructure to manage them? Whoever the advisors of government were on this matter in my opinion just kicked the can down the road. We are inching gradually to the 31st May expiry for the current directive and I wonder what decision will be taken?

Finally, I quote a section of the oath of office sworn by our President: “having been elected to the high office of President of the Republic of Ghana do in the name of the Almighty God solemnly affirm that I will be faithful and true to the Republic of Ghana; that I will at all times preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the Republic of Ghana; and that I dedicate myself to the service and well-being of the people of the Republic of Ghana”.

So Mr. President, I implore you, do not leave the citizens you swore to serve stranded and abandoned all alone on foreign lands in these trying times. Their preservation, protection and well-being are also important.