Rev. Professor Adobea Yaa Owusu Delivers Inter-College Lecture on COVID-19 and its Effects on Healthcare

Rev. Professor Adobea Yaa Owusu of the Social Division of the Institute for Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER) has noted that one measure which ultimately saved Ghana from a much worse situation and contained the spread of COVID-19 was the stringent testing and follow-up measures at the Kotoka International Airport (KIA).  

She expressed this view when she delivered an Inter-College Lecture organised by the College of Humanities, University of Ghana, on the topic ‘COVID-19, Health and Healthcare Services in Ghana’. 

Professor Adobea Owusu traced the history of COVID-19 and key issues that characterised it leading to the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring it a pandemic on 11th March, 2020. Quoting the Director General of WHO in a recent interview indicating that, “the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down”, the Lecturer took her audience through both the negative and positive effects of the pandemic, government’s response, challenges the government faced in implementing policies, reflections on Ghana’s management of the virus, lessons learnt, and proffered some policy recommendations for the future. She noted that the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization warned of possible devastating implications and effects from COVID-19 for Africa because of its already weak healthcare systems.

Professor Owusu stated the well-known origin of the pandemic which is the Wuhan Province in China. She confirmed that Ghana’s first two cases were brought into the country from Norway and Turkey, and that by August 10, 2020, Ghana had recorded 41,212 cases with 215 deaths. Based on these figures, Ghana’s infection rate was declared 3rd highest in Africa and 51st globally at the time. However, Ghana escaped what could have been a much worse onslaught from the COVID-19 infection mainly due to the early attention given to the pandemic, a move which has received international acclaim. The distinguished Lecturer noted that cases were higher in urban areas than rural areas, with Greater Accra accounting for the highest rate in Ghana, with more than 50%, followed by Ashanti region with 18%. Ghana also experienced a third wave of the pandemic between July – September 2021 resulting in more deaths.

Professor Owusu justified why she focused her research on health and healthcare, indicating that existing literature on the impact of the pandemic on Ghana concentrates its effects on jobs and the economic lives of many people. She argued that health is a central life-force as far as the welfare and livelihoods of citizens and the nation are concerned. Thus, the effect of the pandemic on the health and healthcare of the people is a critical component of the socio-economic ramifications of the pandemic in Ghana, and internationally. She also stressed that those most affected by the social distancing measures of the pandemic were the vulnerable, who could hardly afford the financial and non-financial implications of the social distancing measures which were instituted.  

The distinguished lecturer highlighted some of the negative effects of COVID-19 particularly the strain on healthcare budget and expenditure and infrastructure, especially facilities for testing, quarantine, and isolation amidst the pandemic. Others were the prioritisation of COVID-19 over equally pressing health needs such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, child and maternal health. For instance, some pregnant women reportedly stopped pursuing anti-natal care during the pandemic for fear of being infected at the healthcare facilities. Also, citizens were known to have shunned seeking care from healthcare facilities, preferring to use community pharmacies and chemical shops, especially in the case of children under 15 years of age. That created other healthcare-related problems, such as threats to mother and child care.  

Similarly, there was decreased outpatient attendance due to the fear that potential patients could contract COVID-19 from healthcare institutions. Among others, there was increased morbidity and mortality, shortage of PPEs for health professionals, including frontline healthcare workers, as well as avoidable deaths due to stigmatisation of persons infected with COVID-19 and their immediate family members. 

A section of the audience during the Inter-College Lecture

Professor Owusu informed her audience that there was an increase in psychosocial distress and negative mental health impact of COVID-19 on citizens which was exacerbated by the stressors related to the social protective measures such as social distancing, lockdown/restrictions on movement, job losses and isolation of infected persons. The pandemic also brought in its wake financial distress, increased domestic violence and molestation in households, as well as untold hardship on many people. Health workers were stretched to their breaking points with some losing their lives and others absenting themselves from their jobs. In the initial stages of the pandemic, at least 2,000 Ghanaian healthcare workers were infected with the virus and four doctors died. 

Professor Adobea Owusu posited that there was some good news which watered down the dreary negative news, and the successes chalked during the pandemic were also laudable. For example, Ghana has achieved better case-recovery and lower case-fatality rates compared internationally, including Africa.   The commitment by some frontline healthcare workers and industry players helped to treat and protect the ailing population. Also, the University of Ghana successfully undertook the genome sequencing of the viral strain of the SARS-CoV2, which helped in Ghana’s efforts of tracing, testing, treating, and containment of the pandemic. Furthermore, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) collaborated with Incas Diagnostics to develop a Rapid COVID-19 Diagnostic Test kit. 

Importantly, there was deepened international collaboration and harnessing of our social capital as the first consignment of COVAX vaccines came to Ghana. There was increased activity of Faith-Based Organisations who partnered Government of Ghana in responding to the pandemic. Social protection measures included distribution of food to people to alleviate their plight as well as the increased use of PPEs for healthcare workers, other frontline workers, and in educational institutions, among others. The Government of Ghana also graciously stepped up its WATSAN (Water and Sanitation) agenda. 

Professor Owusu said that there was increased creativity during the period, for example, solar powered handwashing devices, mechanised soap and hand sanitizer dispensers, volunteerism and harnessing of local resources, increased or improved health promotion and information dissemination as well as the use of Zipline drone delivery technology to deliver test samples and vaccines to remote and often inaccessible areas of Ghana. Following these interventions, Government of Ghana put in place measures to stop the “importation” of foreign infections with border closures, lockdowns, strict adherence to use of PPEs including nose masks, use of hand sanitizers, and ban on all forms of public gathering and vaccination of the citizenry. There was also the promulgation of legal instruments to back the Government’s management of the pandemic, employment of additional healthcare professionals, and other quasi-health interventions such as disinfecting and fumigating some public spaces, including educational institutions.

According to Rev. Professor Owusu, all these interventions were not without challenges. The inequalities that exist within Ghana in terms of healthcare and other socio-economic needs of vulnerable groups came to the fore. There was also the issue of the emergence of new variants of COVID-19 and the endless churning of conspiracy theories as well as miscommunication. She also admitted that there were challenges in the implementation of government policies regarding COVID-19, such as the number of available and accredited COVID-19 testing laboratories in the country, and particularly where they were sited. Those laboratories were concentrated in the Greater Accra region with the rest sparsely spread in other regions, with as many as ten regions without accredited COVID-19 laboratories as of 28th September, 2021. Other challenges highlighted were stigmatisation and its effects; stigmatisation of healthcare workers; stigmatization of patients by healthcare workers and their negative consequences. Furthermore, there was increased cost of doing business for healthcare institutions, vaccine hesitancy among the Ghanaian populace, reduced healthcare for other equally urgent healthcare conditions such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, maternal and child healthcare, and low capacity for COVID-19 research.

Enumerating some lessons learned from the pandemic, Professor Owusu stressed the unpreparedness of the world for pandemics. For instance, the lessons for COVID-19 teaches us the need to be pandemic-ready at all times. Also, Ghana had no Public Health Isolation and Treatment Centres. She mentioned that among others, there is the need to improve housing stock and quality in Ghana generally, and particularly, among the vulnerable and inner-city populations. Others include the need for exhaustive data targeting the poor and vulnerable populations in Ghana, and the completion of the Ghana National Household Registry to cover the whole nation, for purposes of better targeting. There was also a call for Ghana and West Africa to produce their own vaccines. 

In her conclusion, Professor Adobea Owusu made some recommendations such as better data management and keeping of statistics on the effects of COVID-19 on healthcare workers and the healthcare system in general. There is also the need for enhanced capacity for research on COVID – both social and scientific, coupled with the need for improved mental health services in Ghana. The establishment of the proposed additional psychiatric hospitals in the middle and northern belts of the country will have a very positive impact on the increased need for mental healthcare and psychological counselling occasioned by COVID-19. Finally, while the need for increased public-private contribution to healthcare infrastructure cannot be over-emphasised, all of Ghana should be camera-ready for health emergencies and other emergencies in general.

(L-R) Professors Peter Quartey (Director of ISSER, Adobea Y. Owusu (Lecturer) and Daniel F. Ofori (Provost of CoH)

In his closing remarks, the Chairman for the lecture, Professor Daniel Frimpong Ofori, Provost of the College of Humanities, lauded the Lecturer for covering the subject in detail. He stated that vaccinations must be taken seriously in Ghana and called on Ghanaians to do away with superstitions and conspiracy theories to save lives.

The Inter-College lecture, which was held at the Main Auditorium, ISSER (Annex), was attended by a cross-section of faculty, graduate students, teaching assistants, graduate assistants, friends and family of the Lecturer and other staff of the University of Ghana.