President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo’s near midnight speech had one aim – save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians from the coronavirus. But it rather spawned panic withdrawals and mass migration, thereby raising the stress levels of the people.
One wonders if the true motive for the lockdown order will be served by the turn of events in the country.
Ghana is now grappling with 152 cases of coronavirus infection since the first two cases were announced last two weeks. There have been five deaths. As a result, effective March 30, 2020, four major cities namely Accra, Tema, Kumasi, and Kasoa will be undergoing lockdown over the next two weeks.
The primary worry of a majority of Ghanaians in the face of this global pandemic is the effect of a mass outbreak on the country’s most vulnerable groups and pathetic healthcare system. But there is a second and crucial worry – the poor handling of COVID-19 communication by the government, a situation which may speed up the spread of the disease across Ghana.
Today, an unparalleled reverse migration is underway in Ghana and this was specially created by the President’s midnight lockdown speech. The short shutdown notice has driven up prices of foodstuff and other commodities in the market. For instance, gari ‘Olonka’ which was selling between GHS5-7 is now selling at GHS17-20. Similarly, a tin of Nestle’s Milo then selling between GHS14-15 is now selling at GHS17-20.
Another consequence is that hundreds of Ghanaians, including the Kayayei who live on the margins in these four cities are undertaking long journeys back home. There is panic everywhere one turns. This development, I shudder to say, threatens the government’s efforts at arresting the spread of the coronavirus. It also defeats the purpose of the ongoing 14-day lockdown.
The high prices of commodities in the market and mass migration caused by the President’s speech, have exposed the patently systematic flaw in the government’s communication infrastructure since the disease surfaced in the country.
If you are a government or an institution that is all about propaganda, a crisis will always be your enemy. This is because crises have a way of testing institutions communications efforts and stripping to bare the true makeup of the communications machinery. It is worthy of note that communication during crises is not and should not be treated as business as usual.
There are requirements that any government or institution that is handling a crisis must follow. These are; (a) setting up a proactive Coronavirus Crisis Team (to always anticipate and plan), (b) creating a crisis communications scenario for all coronavirus information (enter into the minds of constituents to answer probable questions), (c) avoiding putting up roadblocks (do not impede the flow of information to the constituent), (d) speeding up communication (provide quick information to the public but this needs to come at the price of accuracy), and finally, (e) evaluating the effectiveness of the plan (evaluate the effectiveness of the communication infrastructure during the crisis period).
Although the government of President Akufo-Addo deserves a special commendation for the regular situational updates it provides to Ghanaians, it has not proven proactive enough. This is a time of heightened sensitivity and people tend to place more importance on the way a leader communicates than anything else.
Crisis communication requires that before one puts out any message, the team in charge would have answered the questions that are likely to linger in the minds of people – play the scenario. And the answers to these probable questions have to be funnelled to the people the minute the original message is put out. This calls for a pragmatic and proactive strategy aimed at dispelling any possible confusion that the message may cause. I must say that there is punishment for a breach of these crisis communication requirements.
The kneejerk reaction by the Information Ministry to properly situate the President’s message after the mass panic is indicative of a lost battle. Already, the prices of basic commodities have risen through the roof of the fisherman and petty trader at Chorkor. Also, hundreds of people have migrated to towns that will not be experiencing the lockdown.
Clearly, the government has been overtaken by events of its own making. It is either the Information Minister, Kojo Oppong-Nkrumah and his team were taken unawares by President Akufo-Addo’s speech (most unlikely) or they did not take the planning process seriously (most likely). The penny has now dropped and because Mr Oppong-Nkrumah and his team went to sleep, the ordinary Ghanaian has more questions than answers on his mind with regards to the President’s order.
At the moment, the government has to address the unconscionable increase in the prices of basic commodities and find a way of stopping further migration else the disease would be transported to our parents, sisters and brothers in the unaffected towns across the country.
The government needs to exercise its critical voice in helping Ghanaians stay calm, focused and engaged actively in efforts to stop the spread.
The author, Austin Kwabena Brakopowers, is a development communications practitioner, journalist, essayist and a novelist whose works focus on gender, migration, international relations and development. He could be reached at Brakomen@outlook.com.