The new Coronavirus, COVID–19, is ravaging the world, leaving in its trail widespread indiscriminate havoc, devastation. death. The virus is a respiratory virus and its symptoms include fever, coughs, sneezing, shortness of breath, loss of sense of smell and taste.
Since 8th January 2020, when China officially announced the first infection, detected in Wuhan, China, the virus has swept the world with devastating consequences, living in its wake hundreds of thousands of death, over one million decide cases of infections.
Currently, the infections have affected some one hundred and eighty-two countries, with just some twenty or so countries where no infections have been recorded. Out of this twenty-one, seven are said to be small islands that hardly receive visitors.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared on 16th March, 2020 the virus a pandemic. Approximately, one million, four hundred and eighty-seven thousand, eight hundred and seventy (1,577, 783) cases of infections have officially been recorded to date, with nearly one hundred thousand (100,000) deaths worldwide. The numbers continue to rise sharply by the day, and may well be far more than this at the time it is published.
The countries that have suffered the greatest toll so far are surprisingly some of the most ‘developed and technologically advanced’ nations of the world, with relatively robust health systems, or at least with an appearance of robust health care systems, such as Italy, Spain, Britain and France. They have all been overwhelmed by the contagion of the virus. Their health care systems have woefully failed to contain and suppress the virus. China officially reported some 82,000 infections and some 3000+ deaths. In Europe, Spain has the highest number of recorded cases, 152, 446, with some 15, 238 deaths. Italy has recorded approximately 143, 454 infections to date, with a colossal number of 18, 279 deaths. France has recorded 117, 749 with over 12, 210 deaths. Germany has 115, 523, with 2,551 deaths. Great Britain has recorded some 66,220, with 4,110 deaths. The almighty United States of America is being ravaged by the virus, with some 455, 4543 officially recorded official cases, with over 16,114 deaths to date. The US is yet to reach the peak of infected persons and its death toll, which is estimated in the tens of thousands. The pandemic has exposed the poor public health system of the richest economy and most powerful military force in the world.
Africa as a whole has an estimated total number of over 11,400 recorded cases, with more than 574 deaths. South Africa has the highest number of recorded cases, 1,934, with 18, deaths, followed by Algeria with 1,666 cases and 235 deaths; then Egypt with 1,560 recorded cases and 103 deaths. In Ghana, to date, we have some 313 recorded cases, out of which 6 have died. Of the vast majority of recorded cases in Ghana, 274, is from the Greater Accra region. To date, all but two countries, Lesotho and the Comoros Islands have recorded infections. African countries, including Ghana, are however yet to reach their peak, and there are real worries that, should the virus follow the same trajectory as elsewhere in the world, the loss of life could be incalculable
Prime ministers, princes, ministers of state, sports, Hollywood and other celebrities, have all been infected with the deadly disease. The Prime Minister of Great Britain was admitted into hospital with infection of the virus. So had Prince Charles, a member of Britain’s royal family who is reported to have since recovered. The new coronavirus has proved no respecter of persons, rich or poor, famous or unknown. It gallops worldwide leaving in its trail tens of thousands of deaths. However, even here, the trends show a disproportionate number of deaths among the poor and economically disadvantaged groups. In the US, for instance, African Americans have recorded a greatly disproportionate number of deaths, when compared with the ‘white’ population.
In an attempt to fight back and contain the spread of the virus and defeat it, governments all over the world have had to assume emergency powers, shutting down their borders, imposing draconian restrictions on movement, including lockdowns, introducing preventive measures such as social distancing, the closure of educational institutions, banning of the congregation in churches, mosques, funerals, the discontinuance and calling off sports events, including the 2020 summer Tokyo Olympics in Japan, the banning of mass entertainment gathering, and observance of some basic hygiene protocols. The whole world, it would seem, is at war with what has been described as an invisible enemy.
Disruption of the world economy and recession
In the result, the pandemic has also caused a dramatic disruption of regular economic activities, as we have hitherto known it, with devastating impact on economies worldwide. The more economically developed countries have, so far, been the most affected. Normal economic activities and the world of work have come to a crashing halt, except for those activities that are essential for human survival and for work that can be done from home, using the internet. The World Bank has predicted a serious recession, estimating that global trade will plunge by some 32%! The Bank also projected a GDP loss of 5.1% for Africa, south of the Sahara. Other commentators have suggested that the economic impact will be worse than the combined impact of the 2008 financial crash and 9/11 terrorist attack on the US. For the moment, the countries of the south, especially African countries are yet to experience the full impact of the disruption and devastation that the virus is capable of racking on social life and the economy of our countries. With their structural weaknesses, however, African economies South of the Sahara stand exposed to the most severe catastrophes.
Cracks and Fault Lines in Social Structures
The raging virus has sharply exposed the cracks and fault lines in health care systems worldwide, developed and developing countries, alike, but more so the developing countries, such as African countries. Commentators have observed this is the worst pandemic in the last hundred years, since the 1918 flu pandemic, that leftover 50 million dead in its wake. But like all other pandemics, it will run its course and come to an end, partly as a result human scientific intervention and social engineering. The great question that this experience raises for Ghana, Africa and the rest of the world, though, is whether our world will remain the same after the virulent virus has run its course; whether it will be business as usual thereafter; or will we learn from the experience of the pestilence and, through active and creative human agency, introduce fundamental changes in how we organise ourselves as societies, especially our health care systems and our work of work, and our relationship with the natural world in which the human community lives with other species.
Acceleration of Emergent Changes in Social Structure and the World of work
Definitely, the world cannot be the same after this virus runs its course, even though some are in a hurry, without much reflection, to return to ‘normal life’. Normal life will not exactly be the same as before the pandemic. Aspects of new practices that we have developed in the course of fighting the pandemic may survive the virus, provided there is a conscious effort by society to integrate these practices into our social life as new social habits. This will, of course, depend on those who wield power and influence in society, our governments, public health officials, corporate institutions, faith organisations, civil society and the mass media, and in our parts, our chiefs, queen mothers and market women, and how they conduct themselves thereafter. The people themselves also have an important role to play in this respect.
What immediately comes to mind is the culture of hand watching and greater personal hygiene. The process of digitalisation of society, the increasing role of the virtual world and the development of robotics in the world of work have been on-going over the last few decades. The coronavirus pandemic is bound to accelerate these processes and our society and world of work will increasingly become digital and virtual. Corporate bodies and employees alike will recognise that many employees need not come to work in offices to be able to deliver on their job targets. Even more so, the essential drive for profits that propels the capitalist industry and innovation will speed up the process of replacing human labour with robots, where feasible. This has huge implications for the world of work and workers and trade unions. This is just one example of the need for Africa and us, as Ghanaians, to think through and engage all sectors of society on how we intend to organise our societies and take conscious, informed and planned decisions going forward.
A major development which this crisis will accelerate and accentuate is the use of modern information and communication technologies, especially digital applications, by the state and huge corporate information networks for surveillance purposes and to intrude into the freedoms and privacy of citizens, if not properly regulated. This poses a real threat to a democratic society.
A Critical Look at Ghana and Africa’s Social and Economic systems
To be sure, after we have defeated this pandemic, Ghana and Africa, our leaders and society as a whole need to take a hard and critical look at our public health system. The pestilence has exposed, in the most graphic form, the elemental inadequacy of our public health care systems. And we should remember that this will not be the last epidemic or pandemic to hit us. Indeed, scientists and researches working in the field of epidemiology have predicted that the world is increasingly likely to experience waves of pandemics unless we change our reckless consumption of the fruits of nature and destruction of the planet.
This calls for a radical rethink of how we organise health care. What priority should we, as a people, not just governments, put on public health? Do we want to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in importing V8 Toyota vehicles and other costly toys of the rich and privileged, when our hospitals lack the most basic facilities for work? The elite, who, at the least opportunity, fly for treatment in more superior health systems when they fall sick can no longer do so that easily now. They are compelled to go to the same health facilities that the majority use. Hopefully, they will now learn that it pays to invest in our public health system and will be spurred on by this crisis to give the necessary attention and funding our public health system deserves.
Again, it is a truism that ‘water is life’. Many social campaigners in the water sector have been amplifying this message for decades, without any focused and decisive plan in Ghana and the rest of Africa to make the provision of potable water for all a fundamental and urgent priority of our governments and policymakers. Of course, the rich and powerful do not have any problems of access to potable water, and have, for long, ignored this necessity with elitist contempt. But faced with the coronavirus, that requires regular hand washing under running water and the fact that infection of a poor neighbourhood is a threat to the parlours of the rich and powerful, we are beginning to understand the hard way that potable water for all is indeed a necessity. In Ghana, we should demand from our political parties, who are vying for the mandate to govern from 2021 to 2025, a clear and conniving programme by which every person in Ghana will have access to potable water within the next 2 to 3 years.
If the crisis has stripped naked the veneer of the progress we are making in health care and education, it has equally exposed the terrible and intolerable conditions of life of the disposed and vulnerable in our society and the virtual non-existence of any real social safety nets for them. Again, just as in the field of education and public health, we have been confronted with the naked truth that poor public health and education constitute a threat not only to the direct victims but to society as a whole, we, all, including our narcissistic elite, are beginning to see that allowing mass poverty to flourish, while the rich continue to live in cloistered homes in gated communities (the new fashion of the Ghanian middle class) poses a continuing present danger to all of us, not just the dispossessed and vulnerable. We can now see the imperative of the urgent need to organise our society in ways that reduce to a minimum such vulnerable groups, and begin, right now, to work towards providing robust safety nets for ‘the wretched of our world’.
Education, Communication, the Mass Media and Authentic National Languages
The unfortunate pestilence has brought into graphic relief the fundamental and existential importance of education and of our national languages in social communication. Governments and social commentators alike have bemoaned the social response to the messaging from officialdom and have identified the rather shameful fact that official communication is largely in foreign languages in Africa, south of the Sahara, English, French or Portuguese, a relic of our colonial experience. Policymakers have, however, paid lip service to the importance of authentic national languages for education and mobilisation of our communities. Our attempt at fighting this pandemic has forced home on all of us that having an educated society is not a luxury, and that communication in our own languages is key to reaching out to our people and prosecuting our development agenda. Governments and policymakers should no longer have any doubt about the vital importance of our national languages in our development agenda. The significance of the Free Senior High School policy in Ghana should therefore not be underplayed in its significance for our future. Other African countries ought to learn from the Ghanaian endeavour in this field and adapt it to their specific circumstances and development efforts. The current problems of Free SHS policy implementation should, therefore, not be an argument for curtailing this potentially transformatory policy. Rather, we should identify the challenges and find the most effective ways of fixing the problems at limited cost to society. An educated population is the most precious resource any society has. And we should make this truism count in Ghana and Africa. For a country that fails to educate its citizens has a high price to pay, as we are painfully experiencing
Another major change that could emerge from our coronavirus experience, in the current world of the internet and digitisation, is whether it is still necessary to continue providing education in classrooms and grouping students in boarding schools for learning. Of course, organising this mode of education successfully may require addressing the question of nation-wide electrification and access to the internet.
Equally of note has been the pivotal role of pluralist mass media in providing the public with the much-needed information on government policy and measures to fight the virus, educating the people through their own programmes and shedding light on developments nationwide and holding government to account, as we struggle to contain the spread of the virus and defeat it. Particular mention ought to be made of the critical importance of the work of those media houses that communicate in indigenous Ghanaian languages. Our community radio stations in this respect stand out for mention. It is hoped that the authorities, especially the National Communications Authority that has over the years charted a deliberate policy against the growth of community radio stations, will learn that community radio stations are critical in our development agenda.
Accelerating Inequality in an Increasingly Globalised World
If anyone had any doubts about the highly globalised world in which we live today, the fascinating and terrifying speed at which the novel coronavirus spread across the world should convince all, including the cynics, that, indeed, we do live in a globalised world. From the first indication of the virus in humans in Wuhan, China, in January 2020, the virus has spread to virtually all countries in the world within some three months. Not even the 1917/1918 flu plague that claimed over 50 million lives, had such a global impact.
The virus has taught us, if nothing else will, that we are in many ways one human community and further that we are each our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. It points, in the most poignant manner, to the fact that in today’s world, what happens in one part of the world, has implications for other parts of the world. But while the virus is proof that we live in a global village, this village continues to be driven by class and racial divisions. The challenge, therefore, is to transform the structures to make the world a global village in its full meaning.
The question, however, is whether the rich and powerful, those who wield economic and political power, will give up their power and privileges without a fight. History does not suggest so. They will fight with everything they have to preserve their privileged positions, unless compelled to do otherwise by countervailing, organised social forces, driven by human agency and organisation. This lesson is particularly relevant for Africa.
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Colonialism and Globalization
For lest we forget, globalisation is a phenomenon that is neither new nor recent to Africa. We have lived and been living with globalisation since the fifteen century when the first Europeans set their feet on our continent and unleashed that brutal inhuman trade in human flesh, known as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, by which the West accumulated capital and then paved the way for western capitalist industrialisation. When the slave trade was no longer profitable, it was accordingly abolished in the mid to late 19th century. In its place, the system of colonies was imposed on Africa by Western Europe, reducing Africans and our continent to a source of raw materials for western industries and a captured market for western manufactures, which were made from our raw materials.
We have been struggling to free our economies and lives from the suffocating structures of this world division of labour. Not even our ‘freedom’ from colonial rule proved sufficient to change the fundamentals of this exploitative and oppressive relationship. These are well-known facts of our history. Of all unlikely outcomes, however, the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic provides Ghana and the rest of Africa with the unique opportunity and incentive to begin to turn around this pernicious relationship that has prevailed over five hundred years. Perhaps this is a classic example of how out of adversity, here the virus, emerges new opportunities and outcomes.
What do we mean by this? The global pandemic has meant that most economies on which we rely for our manufactured products, including drugs, and other medical facilities, such as face masks, medical gowns, other personal protective equipment, as well as ventilators, are no more readily available to us from our traditional foreign sources. International trade and investment is now largely curtailed. Whether we like it or not, we are compelled to rely on our own ingenuity and resources to reproduce our lives.
Not only an opportunity; we are left with no other real alternative to finding home-grown solutions to our internal problems. We need basic materials for the fight against this virus. We need effectual medical therapies in the fight against this life-threatening viral scourge. We need to find a vaccine, a cure for this new virus. Other countries, even the almighty superpower, the US, do not have enough to meet their pressing national needs. Our present circumstances, therefore, compel us, as nothing has since independence, to dig deep into the vast well of the Ghanaian and African genius to find local solutions to the immediate problems posed by the virus to our existence and livelihood. It is no longer a fanciful ideological theory. It has become a matter of life and death. This demands that we give all the attention and importance to a largely ignored but critical national asset and resource, our scientific and technological community.
We need, first, to recognise the pivotal role that science and technology play in modern society, in our lives, if we are to become a first world country and continent. In Ghana, in particular, there is an urgent need for policymakers to give our community of scientists, led by the Ghana Academia of Sciences and our scientific and research institutions, the recognition they deserve in promoting a scientific outlook and culture in our society and driving technology and scientific innovation. Secondly, in order that Ghana and the continent, as a whole, profit from the full benefits of science and technology, there is the need for active partnership between our scientific community and Ghanaian and African captains of industry and manufacture. Thirdly, this collaboration between science and industry must be consciously nurtured by government and public policy. It should not be left to the illusory laissez-faire process of the market. It has not been done that way anywhere, and it cannot so be done.
Our Scientific Community
Even in the current world, where our policymakers and governments are blindly driven by neoliberal ideologies to the detriment of our people and economies, the fact remains that the governments of the centres of capitalism are in active partnership with their private sector industries and scientists and researches. It is through the combined collaboration and mutual support of these three sectors that many of the new technologies that we in Africa marvel at, as evidence of the ‘magic of the white man’, are developed.
We, thus, have the living example of the West itself, if need be, to guide us. Our governments should give our scientists and researchers the recognition they deserve by providing them with meaningful and substantial funding, and actively help build the bridges that bring together our scientific community and captains of industry to chart a new path of industrialisation in Ghana and Africa, a path that relies on our own inventiveness.
We cannot continue to be inert consumers of the products of ‘western genius’, conceived of in magical and racial terms. We need rather to dig deep into the creative well of the African genius that produced that great civilisation some thousands of years ago, that the world today still marvels at, and from which western and Arabic science and technology borrowed much to propel their societies. This is the great opportunity that the adversity of the pandemic beckons us to. We should seize it and make it our own, and transform our lives. Already, we have begun to see signs of the ingenuity of the Ghanaian in the solar-driven hand washing machine invented by the young man in Kumasi. We are informed that he is receiving calls about this product from all over the world, including Canada, Nigeria and South Africa. There is also the novelty of the production of low-cost ventilator prototype by a Ghanaian scientist, again in Kumasi. It is important that we take steps to protect any intellectual property rights they may have. These are just two examples of Ghanaian genius and innovation. We should encourage and inspire thousands of our scientists, youth and captains of industry. That is the path towards sustainable development and self-reliance.
Climate Change and International Solidarity
In a more sane world, a world not driven by avaricious profit, hegemony and racism, we would have said with certainty that the worldwide devastation that the virus has wreacked on humanity and the rapid mode of its spread would trigger an urgent, objective call for the global world to come together to find solutions to the world’s problems based on our common humanity. Unfortunately, the dominant forces of the world are not driven by ethical values of our common humanity, solidarity and sharing. They are driven by power and profit.
Does this mean that the world is doomed to the dictates of profit, power and racism? Not necessarily. But to bring about an existential change in global society, it is imperative that we develop countervailing power and force, based on human agency and the organisation and mobilisation of the majority of humanity who are victims, in different degrees, of the scourge of capitalism, irrespective of its innovative capacity. A major platform that can bring together different strands of this global effort to change the world not in the interest of profit and power, but for humanity as a whole, is the challenge of climate change. For years now, the question of climate change and the existential threat it poses to humanity and all other living things has been on the agenda of all international and regional organisations and world leaders. It is, however obvious, that the interests of profit and power have persistently made it impossible for humanity, through international institutions, to take decisive action. Notwithstanding the indisputable scientific evidence of climate change, powerful leaders of the world continue to poo hoo the scientific facts and deny climate change.
The coronavirus pandemic demonstrates in more vivid ways than any single event to date that we live in a global and interdependent world, and that if the world is to survive, then we need to agree on some irreducible minimum policies as essential for our collective survival. The challenge of saving our world from climate change stands at the very top of the challenges facing us, even though it may seem distant and therefore not pressing. The lockdown that different parts of the world have experienced has provided opening and space for other species with which we share the world to come out of their holes to which human activity has relegated them to and to walk the streets and fly in freedom. The lockdown in parts of China has produced cleaner air, which before then had been polluted by toxic elements from automobiles and factory production. Let us all learn the lessons that the novel coronavirus has taught.
The coronavirus pandemic is a call to battle for the world. It demonstrates that we indeed live in a global village and that our survival depends on our collective action. At the same time, it exposes the cracks and fault lines in this global village, riven by toxic social and economic divisions. Sights of our ‘Kayaye’ caught on TV in the chaos of the lockdown of Greater Accra and Greater Kumasi are a graphic reminder. So are the horrifying footage of hordes of India’s dispossessed and homeless; or, if you wish, the huge disparities in deaths of African Americans in comparison with ‘white’Americans. To overcome the increasing existential threats that our species and our planet face, we need global solutions and we should work for global solutions. Each one of us has a role to play. Individual engagement, however, stands the chance of being effectual in producing results only when we organise, mobilise and unite in one irresistible social movement for fundamental changes in how we organise our societies and economies, how we address the glaring inequalities that continue to grow exponentially, and the extent to which we place the survival of our planet above capitalism’s insatiable thirst for profit and hegemony.
For Ghana and the rest of our continent, in particular, we need to rethink and reformulate our priorities, guided by our lived experiences during this pandemic. These experiences show that we have extremely fragile societies and institutions, even as our largely parasitic elite live in conditions comparable to the very rich and powerful in the west. Our elite have failed to transform the inherited the colonial economy into one that works for our people. In particular, we need to re-examine the role of the powerful import lobby in our society. They are the group that have the resources to fund our political parties and who exert great influence on policy. They are the ones who cry the loudest whenever there is the slightest change in the exchange rate, even when such depreciation of the cedi may very well be healthy for the truly productive sectors of our society. We need to start a national discussion and engagement of all social classes and groups on how to organise our society in ways and forms that enable us to produce our needs and reproduce our lives; how to organise our scientific community to play a leading role in technology and building a science and knowledge-based society, in which superstition of whatever hue, religious or otherwise, enjoys no validation; how to organise our society to be spiritually and culturally driven and inspired by the ethical values of empathy, solidarity, honesty and giving, in which greed, exploitation and stealing is banished from our public sphere. That is the society that we should be aspiring to and build after we put the threat of this pernicious virus behind us. To be successful in this huge social agenda, we need to begin the discussion of the new, envisioned social order after the virus right now, and make sure that the political parties and bureaucracy do not hijack any such conversation.
10th April 2020.