Handling Contested Truths in Times of Crises: Ghana’s COVID-19 Experience

This article is part of the following series:

As the pandemic ravages the rest of the world, the casualty rate in Africa remains a mystery to those who predicted doom for the continent. Given African countries’ past experiences with infectious diseases, public health officials at the United Nations, aid agencies, media, and some experts predicted that the continent would be the most vulnerable and susceptible to outbreaks of COVID-19 with mass fatalities. The apocalyptic nature of predictions made many in Africa not only seek information, but also contest “truths” of COVID-19 even before the continent recorded its first case. These “truths” rarely engage with what communities can do to avert these predictions, thereby downplaying the agency of Africans and their governments in handling the spread of COVID-19. Instead, portrayals of Africans as helpless victims, waiting passively for their inevitable fate, are rooted in colonial notions of the white man’s burden and post-colonial discourses of dysfunctional African states. Accordingly, the African continent was relegated to an ineffectual state of doom, while other countries and regions were viewed based on what they could do, and what they were or were not doing. Indeed, even when other regions such as Hong Kong and Taiwan were credited with obtaining experience from their handling of past outbreaks such as the SARs, African countries with similar past experiences of dealing with infectious diseases like the Ebola outbreak, were still not given the benefit of the doubt.

It was not until several months after the first recorded case in Africa that these narratives of COVID-19 began to consider African countries’ responses to the pandemic as defying earlier predictions. Contrary to earlier predictions, most African countries have in fact minimized the impact of the pandemic. One African country that has received global commendation for its general response is Ghana. In Ghana, as in many other places ravaged by COVID-19, news and concerns about the dreaded novel coronavirus preceded the arrival of the virus itself. After the first global outbreak, anticipation of the virus reaching the shores of Ghana and its potentially devastating effects gripped the country. The fear of importing the virus ultimately influenced the Ghanaian government’s first major decision not to evacuate its citizens stranded in the epicenter of Wuhan, China. Nevertheless, the country recorded its first two cases on March 12, 2020. Among the immediate actions after the first imported case was the decision by the government to place a ban on all travel of state officials and a restriction on entry into Ghana by non-Ghanaian citizens (except resident permit holders) traveling from countries that had recorded at least 200 coronavirus cases. Only 10 days later, on 22 March 2020, the Ghanaian government made the decisions to close the country’s land, sea, and air borders to human traffic.

As noted earlier, Ghana’s handling of COVID-19 has been relatively impressive; indeed, the dire effects of the virus fostered scientific and technological innovations in attempts at its containment. However, the post-first case saw the emergence of several different discourses, both locally generated and globally circulated, which produced varying stories, ideas, and truths about the virus—and which served to (mis/under-) inform citizens. In this piece, we ask how discourses about the virus were and are being used as an essential tool for contesting these truths, fostering inclusiveness, and shaping perceptions of the country’s handling of COVID-19 and vaccination program. Through the case of Ghana, we challenge the bleak picture painted by Western agencies, demonstrating instead how African states’ interventions mobilized various stakeholders to respond to the pandemic.

Update No. XX: Measures taken to combat spread of coronavirus

The government of Ghana took center stage in addressing and shaping COVID-19 discourses in Ghana. This discursive approach manifested in the institution of periodic televised presidential addresses on COVID-19, titled: “Update No. XX: Measures taken to combat spread of coronavirus.” At the time of writing this piece, there have been 25 presidential updates. The opening line of each address, “Fellow Ghanaians,” stuck in the minds of several Ghanaians who anticipated these addresses, with some parodying these speeches on social media. Through this series of public addresses, the president communicates the state of COVID-19 infections and the government’s response, reiterates guidelines for conducting business amid the pandemic, and educates the public about best hygiene practices. These updates also serve to announce policies, restrictions, and guidelines for social gatherings, among other kinds of information.

The “Update No. XX” addresses demonstrate the tone of seriousness with which the Ghanaian government responded to the pandemic—evidenced by the fact that they are delivered by the president and reinforced by weekly expert updates organized by the Information Ministry. The addresses are also synopsized in two other languages in order to reach a larger audience. As officially distributed discourses, these addresses legitimize and (re)enforce narratives about the pandemic and the Ghanaian government’s attempts and intentions to handle it.

However, this government-led information distribution campaign is not without resistance from local communities and local elites. For those who neither live nor work in the so-called hotspots, the effort against the pandemic appears merely rhetorical, as they do not see what is being done “on the ground.” Some citizens express dissatisfaction with what they regard as too much talk and too little action, calling on the president to stop speaking “too much English” and imploring him to make things better. Experiences of some harder-hit nations, like the United States, suggest that what people do (and not do) is crucial to curbing the spread of COVID-19. Thus, this push for a state narrative seeks to remind people who tend to act as if they have already forgotten about the pandemic that the threat of COVID-19 is still present.

In essence, contrary to parts of the world where citizens and experts contested truths put forward by leaders, people in Ghana anticipated the circulation of truths about COVID-19. This, in part, is due to multiple sources of information available to Ghanaians through social media. In a free media environment, we view Ghanaian citizens in a position of power, from the level of middle-class tech-savvy citizens to the grassroots; empowered by technology (smartphones) and connectivity (social and other non-mainstream media), Ghanaians did not rely solely on the government, but consumed, (re)produced, and (re)circulated information both locally and also internationally.

Access to information via social media shifts power dynamics with regard to who shapes the narrative, especially when people do not rely on or trust their governments. In Ghana, this distrust was fueled by the fact that the outbreak was happening in a keenly contested election year. Every governmental decision and action was viewed as for political gain or access to financial packages from the World Bank, making each move contested by local citizens, critics, and opposition parties alike. The government’s efforts in contesting truths are therefore reactionary and respond to this complex information environment. The Ghanaian government’s response is yet again met with contestations—some of which the government needs to clarify further and defend. Nonetheless, the presidential updates ultimately shape the discourses of the truth or the myth of the virus in the country.

The Ghanaian government’s approach laid the groundwork for its fight against the virus. However, this attempt, contested by local narratives, also serves to contest “truths” about Africa’s fate in the face of COVID-19. It highlights the role of state intervention in a public health crisis, even when faced with limited resources, by showing how the use of state-guided narratives can be a tool to support concrete interventions in the fight against COVID-19. Indeed, the importance of state-led “truths” is critical at a time when other former and current state leaders (such as Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Magafuli in Tanzania) have fed into public skepticism, resulting in adverse outcomes of the response to the pandemic in their respective countries.

Skepticism and vaccine hesitancy

In Ghana, discourses about the existence of COVID-19 and its devastating impact are varying and often contested amidst alternate realities for differently situated segments of the population—depending on where they live relative to the so-called hotspots of the virus. Perceptions range from firm acknowledgment, to accepting the pandemic as a distant threat ravaging communities other than one’s own, to staunch and total denial. These contested discourses shaped notions of the virus before its detection in Ghana and have persisted through COVID-19’s community spread to the current inoculation efforts. In the following section, we pay particular attention to the discourses and contested truths in Ghana under the vaccination phase of the pandemic.

Over a year since the outbreak of COVID-19, much of the world now looks to vaccines as perhaps the only way of returning to some semblance of normalcy. However, there are concerns that developing and underdeveloped nations may be left behind in what has been a global scramble for and hoarding of vaccines by developed nations. This necessitated the formation of the COVID-19 Global Vaccine Access Facility (COVAX)—a partnership between the Gavi Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the World Health Organization (WHO) —to reduce vaccine disparity by procuring and delivering vaccines for fair distribution around the world, particularly to poorer countries. Ghana became the first country to receive vaccines under the COVAX scheme.

However, Ghana’s status as the first COVAX recipient complicated the government’s efforts in contesting public discourse, as COVID-19 vaccines were received with increased skepticism. These concerns were primarily grounded in the historical and contemporary experimentation of various vaccines on the African continent—which has led to much skepticism across a section of Africans about the safety of vaccines. Vaccine skepticism in Ghana was further compounded after a video clip in which a French scientist proposed vaccine experimentation in Africa went viral on social media. In the clip, Jean-Paul Mira cites “unavailability of masks, treatment, and resuscitation” as justifications for proposing experimenting on Africans, while also drawing parallels with AIDS studies targeting sex workers. These comments were widely decried as racist by many, including the WHO. Some skeptics in Ghana used the video to support their distrust in COVID-19 vaccines. This culminated in the trending hashtag “#AfricansAreNotLabRats.”

Discourses around vaccine safety, efficacy, and potential unknown side-effects have since remained prominent reasons for reluctance in Ghana. Hesitancy was again complicated by reports of rare blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine (which was the vaccine used in Ghana at the time). Strikingly, this challenge and skepticism of government discourse of safety was not only articulated by ordinary citizens but also by well-known politicians. For instance, citing Western engagement with Africa as one of Western interests above all else, an opposition political party leader doubted the efficacy of the vaccines—with a claim that they are of poor quality meant to “kill Africans.” He even suggests that the vaccine the president took on live television to instill confidence in the vaccination program was a malaria vaccine disguised as the COVID-19 vaccine. Distrust of developed nations’ interest-driven agendas, rooted in the history of colonialism, capital exploitation, and history of medical experiments in the African continent, led to some questioning or outright disavowing vaccines sent to the country.

Dealing with vaccine hesitancy

In dealing with vaccine hesitancy, the Ghanaian government again took center stage to shape discourses surrounding the safety, efficacy, and importance of taking the vaccine. First, the various untruths and conspiracy theories about the vaccines—such as the notion of a potential vaccine altering DNA or causing infertility—were vehemently debunked by the president through his presidential updates. Further, in a series of glamourous public relations stunts, the president, vice president, his cabinet, members of parliament, leaders from opposition parties, religious and traditional leaders, and other well-known personalities in the country received the first dose of the vaccine on live television to raise awareness and instill confidence in the vaccination program.  

Such societal elites and leaders became vaccine advocates debunking vaccine conspiracies and serving as living testaments to the safety of the vaccines administered in the country. Religious leaders especially made a significant impact on the members of their various denominational affiliations, some of whom cited religious reasons for reluctance or refusal to take vaccines. For instance, the Church of Pentecost, where a small cross-section of members held views that either propagated or spearheaded the boycott of vaccines for religious reasons, formed a COVID-19 Technical Committee to evaluate myths surrounding vaccines. The Church ultimately issued a communique to the its members debunking reasons for vaccine hesitancy, while advising members not to rely on social media for information. In so doing, they also demonstrated how dealing with COVID-19 disinformation is seen by many in Ghana as a collective responsibility of all community stakeholders.

In conclusion, all these efforts of discursively sensitizing the public have contributed to the initial uptake of vaccines in the country. As Ghana struggles to procure more vaccines on its own to increase coverage, it is essential to continue providing reliable information and contesting unreliable information to stand the chance of achieving herd immunity when/if adequate vaccines become available. This is a challenge that is likely to increase with the introduction of a new vaccine, Sputnik V, for deployment. A new vaccine comes with its controversies that might need clarifying in order to gain confidence.

Hagan Sibiri is a graduate of Fudan University with a PhD in international politics. His research interest revolves around East Asia–Africa links, with a particular focus on China’s African Policy. He also researches Ghana’s response to COVID-19 and the resilience of African entrepreneurs in China under COVID-19. His work has appeared in the East Asian Community Review, Insight on Africa, the Kennedy School Review, the Africa Spectrum, Sustainability, Health Policy and Technology, Ethics, Medicine, and Public Health.

Ignatius G.D. Suglo is a PhD candidate in China studies at the University of Hong Kong. His research interests include Africa-China relations, discourses and knowledge production about Africans in Chinese popular media, and people-to-people engagement. His work has appeared in the Journal of Asian and African Studies and the Hong Kong Review of Books.

One reply on “Handling Contested Truths in Times of Crises: Ghana’s COVID-19 Experience”

Insightful exposè. What I however find missing in this article is the absence of certain facts such as activities of government which tend to convince the citizenry that there was michieve about the COVID i.e. the handling of the protocols as key government appointees were seen publicly flaunting them, etc.

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