As the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic continues to spread around the world, a lot of eyes are on Africa — as a continent with existing issues of inequality, a lack of health infrastructure, and humanitarian crises that risk being exacerbated by a global health pandemic.
While cases in Africa remain comparatively low, the West African nation of Ghana reportedly has one of the highest number of confirmed cases in Africa, with over 630 confirmed cases to date — the second highest number in the sub-region, after neighbouring Ivory Coast.
The country has been praised for how it has responded to the virus — particularly in terms of testing, and as of April 13, more than 44,000 people had been tested.
Gameli Aheto, 31, is a doctor in Ghana. Since 2016, he has worked at the accident and emergency department of the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in the capital city, Accra.
We spoke to Aheto to find out more about the response to COVID-19 in Ghana, and how the outbreak has affected himself, his colleagues, and his patients.
Gameli Aheto is an emergency doctor working to fight COVID-19 in Ghana's capital city, Accra.
What are the main measures the government in Ghana has taken so far?
After we had the first two confirmed cases, the Ghanaian government pledged $100 million to stop the spread of COVID-19 and support the health care system – but it’s not entirely clear to me how the money will be distributed.
At the beginning of April the president announced a few more measures, including a 50% salary increase for frontline health workers, no taxes for the next three months, free water supply for all citizens, and a lockdown of a number of regions including Greater Accra.
Just people who are selling food and water are still allowed to be on the streets or in their shops – and the same is true for fuel stations and hospitals obviously.
The government also started an awareness campaign to sensitise people for social distancing and washing their hands, to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
What are the implications of COVID-19 for health workers like you?
Health workers are obviously at a greater risk of picking up diseases from patients they are treating. But I am young, so I am not so much concerned about my own health but rather about my parents. It was my sister's birthday last weekend but I didn’t go to celebrate with my family.
Our facilities are not overwhelmed yet – but I have seen the pictures and listened to health workers from places like Italy and that’s enough to break anyone down.
We haven’t reached the peak yet but it is really crucial to get the right measures in place. There are a lot of meetings and debates around what we need at the hospital to be able to treat the patients and manage the situation.
After we had the first confirmed case in our hospital we had to ask our head of department to provide things like PPEs [personal protective equipment], face masks, and COVID-19 tests for doctors and nurses who might have been infected. We are still waiting for some responses to our requests.
How does the pandemic influence everyday life in a busy city like Accra?
My hair doesn’t look great since I can’t go to the barber — but that’s obviously just the funny side of it.
Everyday life has been influenced massively. There are cars on the streets, but not as much traffic as there usually is. The nightlife pretty much doesn’t exist anymore. A lot of the pubs, bars, and clubs have already closed voluntarily before the lockdown was officially announced.
There are some significant measures but I personally believe we even need to scale up the lockdown to deal with this.
What do you think will be the main challenges in the upcoming months?
Our intensive care units in Ghana aren’t as prepared and equipped as they should be. We have only two ventilators in our emergency unit for instance.
I’m really hoping we can keep the peak within the capabilities of our health care system, but I am nevertheless worried about the intensive care system.
For society the longer the lockdown stretches the more it will harm the economy. There might be some kind of resistance at some point. But our only choice is to flatten the curve — otherwise we will be in big trouble.
For other African countries it will be similar. Ghana is one of the more advanced countries in the sub region — so if Ghana will struggle with it, I am really worried about what will happen in other countries around us.
We have a relatively young population in Africa which might be our advantage. But malnutrition and illnesses like malaria and HIV might cause more deaths.
What gives you hope these days?
That is not the first pandemic we have faced. We will definitely win the war, it's just the question of how much damage it will cause. But this will pass. Governments should be truthful to people and more proactive in supplying the things we need.
A lot of organisations and individuals are willing to help. The fund for Ghana to fight COVID-19 has received a lot of donations. People from my high school donated some gloves and masks to me. That clearly shows that people are helping in small ways and doing what they can to make sure that we succeed.
What do health workers like you need the international community or national governments to do to help?
Strong leadership, proactive leadership, and truthful leadership. We need leadership that recognises the problem for what it is, and we need politicians who are humble enough to know their limitations, and who are willing to take experts’ advice and to spend some money to beat this.
There is absolutely no point in securing the economy if people are dying. United we can always build what we have lost back from the economy.