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Why COVID-19 Speech by Ghana’s President Made things Worse

All in all, the lockdown speech by Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo was a great first step, but the government was simply not prepared for the outcome.

The president’s near midnight speech had one aim – to save the lives of Ghanaians from COVID-19. Instead, it spawned panic and mass migration, thereby raising the stress level of Ghanaians.

Ghana is now grappling with 161 cases of COVID-19 since the first two cases were announced weeks ago. There have now been five deaths. As a result, effective as of March 30, Accra, Tema, Kumasi, and Kasoa will be undergoing lockdowns for 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 the strain COVID-19 will place on the country’s inadequate healthcare system. But there is a second and crucial worry – the poor handling of COVID-19 communication by the government may speed up the spread of the disease across Ghana.

Today, an unparalleled reverse migration is underway in Ghana and this was created by the president’s midnight lockdown speech. The short shutdown notice has driven up prices of foodstuff and other commodities. For instance, a bucket of cassava product which was selling for $0.87 – $1.21 is now selling for $2.95 – $3.47. Similarly, a tin of Nestle’s Milo then selling between $2.43 – $2.60 is now selling for $2.95 – $3.47.

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 COVID-19. It also defeats the purpose of the ongoing 14-day lockdown.

The high prices of commodities in the markets 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 an institution’s 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: setting up a proactive crisis team; creating a crisis communications scenario for all information; avoiding putting up roadblocks; speeding up communication; and, evaluating the effectiveness of the plan.

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. And the answers to these probable questions have to be funneled 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.

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 for the fisherman and petty traders at Chorkor. Also, hundreds of people have migrated to towns that will not be experiencing any lockdown.

Clearly, the government has been overtaken by events of its own making. It is fairly obvious that Information Minister Kojo Oppong-Nkrumah and his team were not quite prepared for any fallout from Akufo-Addo’s speech and they did not take the planning process seriously. Oppong-Nkrumah and his team went to sleep and now ordinary Ghanaian have more questions than answers regarding 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 which will increase the spread of COVID-19 to our parents, sisters, and brothers in 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 of COVID-19.