President Nana Akufo-Addo’s Covid 19 speeches have become a comfort blanket for many Ghanaians who are struggling to make sense of the invisible enemy known as the novel coronavirus SARS 2 or Covid 19, for short. The Sunday night presidential addresses, collectively known on the street as “fellow Ghanaians”, offer a reassuring voice at a time of confusion and uncertainty. People share information about the speeches for hours before the time comes because there is a high level of interest in the presidential broadcast.
It helps that the President looks like a picture of health. He is looking younger, slimmer and alert; he is a man following health advice even as he struggles around the clock leading the charge against Covid 19. The speeches themselves are well crafted and delivered with balance and sensitivity. That quality of balance is required because while the President is happy that the death toll from the disease is less than half of one percent of the total infected, he is nonetheless sensitive to the fact that every death is a matter profound personal grief to the bereaved family and friends. Moreover, with the Covid 19 caseload still rising, even the President, guided by science as he says he is, cannot see into the future.
Future students and researchers into Ghana’s management of Covid 19 will find the speeches as a useful resource. While they appear straightforward and simple to understand, they are crafted not only to provide information and policy decisions but also meant to raise the nation’s morale and provide a hopeful roadmap to the future. Experts in communication and rhetoric know that the challenge in delivering such a speech is immense. On the one hand, the follow the science mantra calls for hardboiled factual rendition while the need to lift the nation must convey optimism, which is not easy to achieve with a deadpan scientific tone. Thus, to do both tasks at the same time is no rhetorical feat.
The President’s 10th address was in that mold and given that we were going to be moved into a different stage, expectation was even higher than normal. Speculation had grown all week that some religious leaders had put forward proposals for the resumption of religious practices, and of course, the President is aware of the huge size of the events economy now on hold because there are no funerals, weddings and the like. The rumour mill was abuzz with rumours that all restrictions were going to be removed last Sunday.
This caused both elation and alarm because while people are eager to return to normal, there is still the fear of the pandemic lurking everywhere; unseen but ready to pound. In other countries, the gradual removal of restrictions and opening of lockdowns were happening but were accompanied by precise orders and guidelines. For example, churches in Germany had re-opened but congregants had to sit at least one meter apart and no singing. How would Ghanaians handle such a delicate situation – not singing in church?
The President, as usual gave a factual account of the pandemic as it was on Sunday. The number of infected persons, those in active care or self-quarantine and those who had passed away were crisply provided. Much of what the President said carried no controversy and the announcement of the relaxed restrictions were so cleverly done that few people would have noticed that this was a watershed moment. This was the President announcing the coming of the new normal, as casually as you like!
There was one particular place in the President’s speech that caused alarm and must continue to do so, because it is the claim around which the new policy appears to be framed. This is what he said:
“The great majority of us continue to adhere to the social distancing and enhanced hygiene protocols; we have, as a result, altered our way of life to accommodate these changes; and we continue to make sacrifices to speed up the process of bringing our lives safely back to a state of normalcy”.
This statement implies that the President was happy with how Ghanaians had complied with the protocols and was releasing us of some of the restrictions because of his faith in our commitment to doing so in the future. The idea that the President probably believed this to be the case and had made policy based on it is frightening. We know that the President cannot be everywhere, so probably he bases his observation on information provided to him by his officials. Maybe they have evidence the rest of us don’t or can’t have. But the rest of us can see for ourselves, at the very least, where we live, work and visit and it will be hard to back up the statement that the “great majority of Ghanaians” had backed the protocols.
It is possible that the President had come to the conclusion because all the people he interacts with would obey the guidelines. It is inconceivable that anyone would approach Jubilee House without a mask or unwashed hands. But it is also just as likely that the President actually receives reports from paid officials who can put their hands on their hearts and call out a majority of Ghanaians as saints instead of sinners in this regard!
One thing to make clear is that what the President said cannot be fact checked because we have no credible published public opinion polls that can tell exactly what is happening, so it is important to explain that we may be dealing with different perceptions here. However, because masks, for example are not worn in secret, it is fairly easy to see whether people are wearing them or not. The evidence says they are not wearing them. The enthusiasm with which people embraced Veronica buckets and hand sanitisers is waning and social or personal distancing is nonexistent. The stark truth is that the great majority of us are NOT observing the protocols nor have we ALTERED our way of life.
We should be worried that we have moved into a new phase based on a perception that the great majority of us are behaving in a certain way when in fact, the reverse is the case. Some may consider this to be a small matter of different opinions but both cannot be right and if one is right and not the other, we have a problem. One must hope that the President’s information is the right one, although it is difficult to see how that can be the case. Just take a gentle stroll in any community in Ghana and look for yourself. It is not happening.
But we are already in the next phase, which is the gradual opening up of society and the economy. We need to do this but it has to be done safely and sensibly. This means that people must play their parts by adhering to the protocols in a way we have not done so far. It will be unsafe to assume that we are doing it now and will continue to behave well. Instead, the government must accept that the great majority of Ghanaians have not observed the protocols so that they can rise to the challenge of public education to change attitudes and perceptions. The good news is that if it is done properly, we can turn our behavior around in a short time. if we get the communication right, people will do as you want them to do in our collective best interest. Communication too is a science.
Nana Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng
With support from Media Foundation for West Africa Fact Checking Project