05
Sat, Dec

Learnings for a Nation in Grief

Thoughts From Afar
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For months, we have been in a place where many assume that this virus has disappeared from our shores. A look at pictures from parties, funerals, weddings and other social events posted on social media indicates that many are also living in this false illusion that ...
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Katie McGarry argues in her book, “Pushing the Limits” that “the worst type of crying wasn’t the kind everyone could see, the wailing on street corners, the tearing at clothes. No, the worst kind happened when your soul wept and no matter what you did, there was no way to comfort it. A section withered and became a scar on the part of your soul that survived. For people like me and Echo, our souls contained more scar tissue than life.”

This week, the passing of arguably one of Ghana and Africa’s most charismatic politicians His Excellency Jerry John Rawlings, sent shock waves through Ghana. As we respect the wishes of his immediate family and accord them the privacy they request for, the circumstances surrounding his passing must be a cause for concern. This is because Mr Rawlings had made it known that as a result of the current pandemic, he had avoided human contact as much as possible; to the extent that he had even avoided going to the barbers and was often spotted with overgrown hair.

Unfortunately, as fate will have it, his mother passed just before him at a time when the pandemic seemed to be under control locally. At that time, funerals and other gatherings were permitted as long as the protocols required to keep us all safe were observed. Footage from the funeral of Madam Victoria Agbotui points to the fact that the observation of social distancing and other similar COVID-19 protocols were difficult to comply with, due to the size of the crowd.

In a city such as Accra where serological data had indicated a COVID-19 prevalence rate of 20%, it is safe to assume that for every one thousand people that were at the funeral, at least two hundred of them could have unknowingly been carry this virus. Considering the number of photo opportunities and other pleasantries that members of the public sought with him, the information from sources that President Rawlings had tested positive for COVID-19 before his passing, sad as it may be, was predictable.

For months, we have been in a place where many assume that this virus has disappeared from our shores. A look at pictures from parties, funerals, weddings and other social events posted on social media indicates that many are also living in this false illusion that close friends and family members are unlikely to contract this disease and spread it amongst each other. When on the contrary it has been shown that primarily in this pandemic, contagion is driven mainly by assortative mixing. A type of infection spreading in which the bias to infect others is in favour of close connections between a network of people with similar characteristics than it is with strangers.

Thus, in the United Kingdom, for example, there was a significant spike in infections on university campuses when tertiary education resumed as infected students with little regard for hand washing, physical distancing, the wearing of masks etc. infected each other. Before that, it had been shown that a mass event held by Donald Trump in the White House Rose Gardens during which the nominee for the United States Supreme Court was announced led to a super spreading of COVID-19 amongst many attendees.

As a country, though our mortality rates may be low, this new level of complacency and dropping of our guard as President Akufo-Addo pointed out in his last address needs to be nipped in the bud. It must because if it is not quelled, though the majority of those infected may survive their infection, they may pass it on to others more elderly and with comorbidities who may just not have what it takes to see themselves through. The simple truth is that COVID-19 protocols should be taken even more seriously when amongst our close peers as they are more likely to be the source of any potential infection we pick up.

We cannot also continue to delude ourselves that mass gatherings do not affect our uptick in cases, with arguments such as “if mass political activities were a driver of contagion, the entire country should be seeing a spike in their case count”.

Apart from such arguments being a driver of complacency, they also demonstrate a lack of understanding of contagion and the drivers there off. To start with, for there to be contagion, there needs to be the availability of the infectious pathogen and a susceptible population to be infected. However, the quantity of pathogen available (inoculum size) is another huge determinant. If the inoculum size is non-existent or low, mass gatherings irrespective of the large susceptible population will not influence contagion much. The reverse is also true.

Therefore, holding mass gatherings in the Greater Accra Region where the availability and quantity of SARS-CoV-2 viral particles have been high all through the country’s expose to this pandemic, will result in a higher number of infections than you will expect in a region that has had a low inoculum size. Hence, to see the large disparity in the active case between regions is not a basis to argue that contagion is not affected by mass gatherings and cannot be justification for us to engage in activities that are bound to worsen our plight. It may be the Former President this time who unfortunately has had to take the fall for our inequities, but we need to see the grief of his family as a possibility for us all. As we have argued in the past, for anyone who loses a loved one during this pandemic, the statistics do not matter. To such a person, that death is one death too many.

We need to be aware that we are nowhere near getting out of these woods yet. We hold this view because the data suggests that COVID-19 antibodies wean quickly and that herd immunity through natural exposure may be a mirage. Also, African countries are not close to the front of the queue for any of the leading vaccine candidates. Even if we were, the logistical challenges that any new vaccine will bring are one that will test even the most well-resourced country. These challenges include the herd immunity threshold which will require vaccination of at least 80% of any given population, the fact that most of the leading vaccine candidates will require two doses to confer protection, the availability of stocks to be procured when they become available, the limited information on the length of any acquired immunity due to vaccination and the cold chain requirements needed to maintain the integrity of the vaccines.

We have no indications that any concerted efforts are in place across the continent to ensure that these challenges are addressed. We therefore have to use the age-old weapons that are effective during pandemics i.e. hand and respiratory hygiene, physical distancing, the avoidance of crowds and the wearing of face-covering. To ignore these will be akin to fighting a war against an unseen foe with an empty armoury.

Divisive as the persona of our Former President may be, we owe it to ourselves and his memory to ensure that this pandemic does not continue to claim the lives of many we care dearly about. His family and the nation may continue to shed tears but without us learning and acting, there will be no cold comfort. Mr Rawlings was always going to be an indelible mark on this country. However, his passing during this pandemic may be the scar we need to remember the threat we face. We must always remember; this virus needs to get lucky only once through the dropping of our guard to continue its contagious charge; let us be wise and stay safe.

Featured Image Courtesy of Joy News

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