Q&A with Dr Adu-Gyamfi on the impact of lockdowns in Ghana

In October 2021, CG’s Professor Toby Green sat down with Dr Samuel Adu-Gyamfi, former Head of History and Political Studies at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, to discuss the catastrophic effects of Covid lockdown policies. Six months on, Professor Green and Dr Adu-Gyamfi revisit that conversation to find out how these policies have continued to impact life in Ghana.

Q. Dr Adu-Gyamfi, we spoke in October about the impacts of lockdowns and the narrow focus on COVID medical care since the advent of COVID-19. How have things changed since then in Ghana?

Essentially, COVID was seen to require an immediate government response, and this led to the lockdown policy. The idea was to reduce hospitalization, so that our lean healthcare infrastructure and limited human resources in the area of healthcare could cope. The initial efforts were also to test, trace and treat. At the same time, there was persistent fear about economic disruption, and also the structure of the community in terms of housing and social space made lockdowns and tracing difficult. The other related protocols, like social distancing, the banning of funeral ceremonies and the reduction of the numbers of persons who could attend burials, among other things, supported a certain regime that aimed at avoiding the spread of COVID. However they did nothing to support the lives of Ghanaians.

These interventions were anchored in Western-oriented philosophies and healthcare strategies. In the case of Ghana, claims by alternative healers, including those with knowledge of herbal preparations, and potential opportunities for drug testing to ascertain the nation’s findings in fighting the pandemic, were not given enough currency or support in the face of the demands and policies of the World Health Organization and its subsidiary, the West African Health Organization (WAHO).

After 2 years, nothing has changed. Vaccine roll-out has largely failed, although anecdotal information shows that people who want to travel abroad, say to Canada, the US and European countries, are getting vaccinated, for fear of their visa applications being rejected.

The problem is that Ghana’s indigenous healthcare history and system are being ignored. There has been a lot of talk in Western media about vaccine apartheid, but this attitude is part of medical colonialism. There is a need for the Ghana Health Service and other National Health Services to admit that we have not got the science of COVID right, and we must therefore allow country-specific indigenous medical resources to be further ascertained, to see how these can best support the fight against the global pandemic. These remedies include local remedies that have undergone various stages of testing within Ghana’s Centre for Plant Medicine Research at Mampong-Akuapim, among others.

Moreover, with all the focus on fighting COVID, Ghana has not seen an improvement of health infrastructure. Neither has it seen advances in many areas in the health sector. Let me however seize this opportunity to praise all Ghana’s allied health workers. The gallant health personnel and of the research units in Accra and of the KCCR at my own institution, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), have contributed immensely to the fight against COVID. This gallant army of researchers, clinicians and nurses cannot be overlooked.

Q. How far do you attribute the problems that Ghana is facing today to the policy decisions taken around COVID-19 – and how far do these problems build on systemic inequities that were already in place?

If I may, let me opine that Ghanaians have been fortunate. We have had low COVID mortality and limited hospitalizations. The ratio of COVID deaths as compared to other diseases suggests that we are better off than all the Western countries. However, our major challenge, I believe, lies in the area of economic disruption. 

I have already alluded to economic disruptions due to the COVID response. Lock-down policies across the globe have had rippling effects on various sectors of human endeavor. These were further exacerbated by the existing health and economic fragilities in the country. After two years of enormous spending to fight COVID, there is now a continuous decline of the Ghanaian cedi’s against the US dollar – so the printing of money has benefited the American empire.

This has further ramifications on import and balance of payment deficits. Businessmen and owners of industry are suffering from shocks, and compensate by compelling consumers to buy their products at cut-throat prices. There is an increasing cost for fuel: one gallon of fuel is now almost 50 Ghanaian cedis. There is an increasing cost for transportation, both at the commercial level and also among private persons who travel in their own vehicles. There is an increasing cost for spare parts of vehicles. Both the formal and informal sectors of Ghana’s economy are suffering from serious economic palpitations. This started with COVID and has since only got worse.

To tackle this, the government of Ghana is seeking to rely on the introduction of its new electronic tax system, the “E-levy”. It is envisaged by the government of Ghana that the E-levy will deliver it from the scourge of falling subject to the support and the guidance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Concerning the E-levy, you may refer to the work of Ophelia Oni and Arianna Gasparri for further particulars.

Should these economic challenges be blamed only on COVID and the COVID response? Maybe we can refer to one of my publications, Adu-Gyamfi et. al (2021), ‘A Covid in the Wheels of the World: A Contemporary History of a Pandemic in Africa’. I am unamused to say that the economy of Ghana is largely agrarian and still a subsistence economy at the periphery, with a colonial structure that supported the production of raw materials to support the European industrial complex. Ghana is still largely the producer and exporter of raw materials as well as the importer of semi-finished and finished commodities. Simply put, any negative external shock, like the impact of the COVID response on the West, can easily exacerbate the already ailing economy of the country. It seems to me that the current economic crisis/challenge in Ghana is an admixture of the lack of, on the one hand, an industrialized economy, along with institutional and political corruption, and, on the other hand, the impacts emanating from COVID policies, including the lock-down policy.

Q. Given the significance of the COVID-19 measures in this picture, how much independence do you feel the Ghanaian government had to make its own decisions regarding the policy responses – and how much did they have to respond to outside pressures?

The COVID-19 measures that were imposed fell within the general global COVID regime, which was promoted by the World Health Organization. While the government of Ghana makes efforts to establish its own internal strategies to achieve set goals under the COVID regime, what they have done so far has been consistent with global health policies emanating from the WHO and her related organizations in Africa and elsewhere. For example, by December 2021, the government aimed at making COVID vaccination compulsory for citizens. I believe there was outside pressure to vaccinate citizens, but we all know that the vaccination does not stop the individual from being infected by COVID. Similarly, the use of masks was consistent with WHO policies. Today, the government of Ghana has made it optional for people to use masks. Even when the mask regime was strictly to be adhered to, the government’s efforts to supply masks to citizens could not support the entire demand of the citizenry. So adhering to this mask policy that followed the WHO’s strategies was problematic. The prevailing circumstances in the West might have made mask use compulsory, but this could not be swallowed hook, line and sinker in the Ghanaian context. The ordinary citizens could just not afford buying, using and maintaining mask after mask. Alternative masks that were made from cloth brought the related challenges of keeping them clean, especially washing them regularly. It was just a mess.

Quite often, these responses are tied to so-called benefits governments could derive from the external organizations that promote them. So corruption and international pressure clearly have a part to play, regardless of the debate over the efficacy of the vaccines and other measures themselves.

Certainly, the disastrous impacts of the economic fallout of global COVID policies have made many Ghanaians suspicious both of the vaccines and of the reasons for this economic situation — lack of trust in the medical establishment is one of the major impacts, and this can have major medical impacts in the future too.

Q. The Ghanaian government embarked on a major spending program to fight COVID-19. By January 2022, some economists were warning that this had created a debt crisis for Ghana. What do you think the impact of that massive spending – throwing everything at the virus, as some have put it – has been for Ghana – positive and negative?

The government keeps on borrowing, and debt servicing on its own continues to bridle the economic growth trajectory of Ghana.  The Government also passed the COVID-19 National Trust Fund Act (CNTF) 2020 (Act 1013) in April 2020, whose purpose was to raise funds to help address the fallout from the pandemic. I believe this was apt. The government was able to raise GH¢ 53,911,249.87 from individuals, churches, corporate bodies, staff of organizations, non-Governmental organizations, groups, and associations. By 30th June 2020, out of this total amount, over GH¢ 32,820,564.97 had been utilized.  Beyond this, the government has not been able to properly account for this fund’s expenditures. The impacts this is having are huge. I have already mentioned the E-levy, which was passed into law some few days ago. The levy’s intention is to generate more funds for the government for the running of the economy. But there are hikes in the prices of food and fuel, and in rent, while disposable income in the formal and informal sector continues to collapse due to the rising cost of living and inflation, among other causes. Indeed, we have finished consuming the meat, and we are left with the bones.

Q. One of the major impacts that people in the West may be aware of is rising prices: what has been the impact of that on people’s daily lives in Ghana?

As already stated, there is an increasing cost of living due to hikes in prices. I think this is not dissimilar from the situation in Western countries. With no government intervention, people will start parking their private vehicles. This will mean delay in reporting to work in places like Accra and Kumasi, the two major developed cities in Ghana. This may then affect output in the public and private sectors of the economy. The E-levy itself is also going to increase people’s spending. They will have to pay money to government on their already taxable income through online mobile-fiscal transactions.

Q. What is the Ghanaian government doing now to tackle this enormous crisis, and is it working?

Again, Ghana’s government thinks that the E-levy will be the magic pill that will cure the economy, by helping it to recuperate from the economic shocks from the COVID response, and from related questions of fiscal mismanagement, which the government refuses to admit. Notwithstanding this, we hear glowing commendation for the government’s efforts to provide roads and new infrastructure, like the expansion and modernization of the Kumasi Airport, where my university is located. The contrast is that: big projects and people’s experiences of daily life are very different.

Q. How do you see the outlook for Ghana over the next few years?

I am still optimistic despite the prevailing challenges. As a country, we should begin to deploy our potential to industrialize, rather than rely on our role as retailers and hawkers of finished goods from the West. There is much that can be gained from tourism and agro-industry. In two years’ time, we shall go into elections. This will further increase government spending and borrowing, as that has been the trend in Ghana. It is possible that there might be a change in government, given the pattern of the eight-year alternation of power between the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC). That will mean the discontinuation of some useful initiatives of the current government by the new government. Since there is no magic wand to fix the economy, it is expected that the government will stick to fiscal prudence to make something out of her economic challenges before 2024.