Letter from Africa: Taking advantage of a crisis
In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene, a former government minister and member of the opposition, considers how to take advantage of a crisis.
When the outbreak of the Ebola virus was announced in Guinea back in March, I do not think we felt at much risk here in Ghana.
There is not much traffic between us and Guinea, so even though we are in the same sub-region, we decided the problem was not urgent.
There was a slight apprehension when the source of the Ebola outbreak was traced to bats, since bats happen to be a delicacy among certain groups in this country and bush meat is the preferred source of protein for many.
But people appeared ready to simply keep a wary eye and we carried on as usual.
Then the virus moved into Liberia and Sierra Leone and hearts quickened around here. There is regular traffic between us and Liberia, the relic of the civil war when refugees from Liberia came here. Many still live here and go back and forth.
We worried a bit more and radio stations started carrying stories about Ebola.
The real panic started with the unfortunate entry and subsequent death in Nigeria of Liberian government worker Patrick Sawyer.
Ghana and Nigeria do not share a border but that is something the nationals of both countries do not really recognise.
We know that anything that happens in Nigeria, will happen in Ghana; just as anything that happens in Ghana will happen in Nigeria; it is only a matter of time and so with five deaths from Ebola in Nigeria, the feeling here is one of grim resignation.
There is genuine widespread fear among the population and finally some public education on the disease has started.
At the same time, we are in the middle of what health officials are calling a staggering outbreak of cholera in our capital city, Accra.
The last figures I saw put the cholera fatality cases at more than 40 dead and 3,100 people having been infected.
The word "crisis" is not much loved by the authorities in this country; they prefer to use "challenges".
On the matter of public health right now in Ghana, however, I am afraid we are in the midst of a full home-grown crisis.
Instead of trying to find euphemisms to describe the situation, we had better accept the reality and use the opportunity to find some long-term solutions.
To borrow a term, why waste a crisis?
Proof that we are waking up to the gravity of the problem came with the arrival on the streets of Accra of the vice-president wearing a mask and ordering the clean-up of the city.
The mayor of Accra has announced that sites have now been found for waste disposal and mounds of rubbish that had been on the streets for months are being removed.
Whilst the officials are doing their bit to clean up the city, more work will have to be done on the personal hygiene level to be able to tame the ravaging cholera outbreak.
We shake hands a lot. That is how we greet each other; it is our way of showing you are at peace with your neighbour, it is our way of welcoming a stranger.
But we now hesitate before shaking hands and when we do, we surreptitiously apply sanitizer to our hands.
Maybe we should stop shaking hands and consider what the Indians do and hold hands to face, bowing to each other so each person keeps their germs to themselves?
Maybe the current ostentatious washing of hands in offices and banks with soap and water will become a firm habit.
The last census figures show that more than half the population of this country do not have toilets in their homes.
Maybe waiting for the possible arrival of Ebola in the midst of cholera will force us to deal with this unacceptable situation.
We love funerals; we love dead bodies and we have elaborate mortuary rituals.
Maybe the current crisis would force us to reconsider these practices?
Do we really have to continue keeping dead bodies for weeks and months and even years as we prepare to give "befitting burials"?
Who knows, cremation might even become an attractive option for dealing with our dead bodies?
To borrow a famous quote from JF Kennedy: "When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity."
Maybe we should accept this particular crisis and not waste it.
Ebola Virus Disease (EVD)
- Symptoms include high fever, bleeding and central nervous system damage
- Fatality rate can reach 90% - but current outbreak has about 55%
- Incubation period is two to 21 days
- There is no vaccine or cure
- Supportive care such as rehydrating patients who have diarrhoea and vomiting can help recovery
- Fruit bats, a delicacy for some West Africans, are considered to be virus' natural host