The fact that Covid-19 did not originate in Africa is a poignant reminder that, like many other things, which over the centuries, have made their way to that continent, the virus has enjoyed fairly, easy passage. Africa has a myriad of problems, not all, of its own making, and could have done without the added burden, of this invidious and lethal enemy. In Ghana, the processes put in place appears to have been measured, thoughtful and effective, at the time of writing (8 June 2020) the number of confirmed cases stood at 9638 with 44 deaths. To date, the President, (an alumnus of Middle Temple) has made a number of speeches to the nation, in which the population has been kept abreast of measures which his government has put in place to contain the virus. Listening to the speeches, one is left with the impression that the approach is driven by openness, accountability and transparency, and that the communication is designed to ensure clarity of direction.
Lockdown and social distancing are sufficiently problematic and costly measures even in the most highly developed and sophisticated economies of the West. In Africa, with its low income populations, with hard to regulate informal economies and small number of healthcare facilities, such measures present governments with a unique set of particularly complex challenges. Having observed what had happened in some advanced countries Ghana acted swiftly in closing-down its borders and introducing compulsory isolation and testing for all those who arrived in the country. As a result, tracking, contact tracing, testing and treatment was rendered relatively easy. The virtues of this speedy intervention speak for themself.
The Ghanaian Parliament’s response was the passing of the ‘Imposition of Restrictions Act 2020’ (IRA 2020), a piece of emergency legislations which gives the President powers to impose restrictions on persons in times of public emergencies, intended contain the further spread of the pandemic for purposes of public safety and protection. The Attorney General, who moved the motion for the third and final reading of the bill, explained that: “the emphasis is on creating a piece of legislation, that will deal not only with the risk that our country has been exposed to presently, but risks that it may face in the future.”
Rule of Law
The IRA 2020 does not provide for the indefinite perpetuation of the exceptional powers which it grants to the executive, neither is it intended in anyway to adversely impact on the freedoms or rights or interests of individuals. It includes clear time limits on the duration of the restrictive measures it makes provision for and is not, on the face of it, a mechanism for the arrest or silencing of journalists, political opponents or any religious or minority groups and it does not appear to be a pretext to weaken the Rule of Law. On the contrary, it has what it takes to entrench it in times of a national emergency. The restrictions which the Act makes provision for, appear compliant with the Country’s 1992 Constitution and the requirements of the (ICCPR) of which the country is a signatory. Ghana has a very vibrant and free media.
Access to Justice
Pursuant to directives from the office of the Chief Justice, health protocols, including social distancing, are being strictly observed in the Courts, with only limited numbers of people, including litigants and their lawyers being permitted into the courtroom for the conduct of a case. At the time of writing, lawyers had not been classified as key workers, but the subject was under discussion. Lawyers can effectively meet and consult with their clients, with firms making use of technology for remote conferencing and observing "no mask no entrance" policies for face to face meetings. Access to lawyers has not been affected and clients can consult although there is not much privacy for consultations in prisons or in the courts. Regrettably, but understandably, lawyers are not being financially compensated or supported by the state during these difficult times. The courts are still functioning but only on a limited basis which is resulting in the build-up of a backlog and, as a result, strict time limits are being applied to hearings.
Amnesty International (AI) seems to be of the view that the Act could be used by present or successive governments to abuse the rights of citizens, because on one reading it grants excessive powers to the President and as such could pose a threat. The Country Director of AI, is reported as having said “we are not criticising a particular government, but we are talking about the fact that once this law exists, whatever government comes into power can use this law against the people”.
Innovations in Pandemic Control
Openness, transparency, and accountability on the part of governments is vital to maintaining public trust, which in turn is crucial for handling public health emergencies. On 20 May 2020, The African Regional office of the World Health Organisation (WHO) hosted the first in a series of virtual sessions for innovators across the region to showcase home-grown creative solutions aimed at addressing critical gaps in the response to COVID-19. Eight innovators from Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Guinea and Kenya are said to have presented ground-breaking solutions, which had already been implemented in their respective countries and are believed to have considerable potential to be scaled up further across the region. The innovations are said to range from interactive public transport, contact tracing apps and dynamic data analytics systems, to rapid diagnostic testing kits, mobile testing booths and low-cost critical care beds. Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, has consistently called for a comprehensive approach to preventing and controlling the COVID-19 pandemic in the region. She recently observed, that “innovation propels human advancement, and that in times like these when we are confronted with a major public health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that our hope for a better tomorrow lies in finding creative, ground-breaking or avant-garde solutions.”
Ghana’s approach seems to have caught the eye of the international community and may be considered a positive role model, not only in terms of public health delivery, but also as far as Rule of Law related approaches are concerned. With a shortage of health care facilities across the country and to encourage social distancing, Ghana’s doctors have looked to technology to allow patients to consult remotely. The most famous example of healthcare-tech in Ghana is the Silicon Valley company Zipline’s use of drones to transport medicine and blood samples. Since the start of the pandemic, drones have been used to carry samples from suspected Covid19 patients to laboratories in big cities to speed up diagnosis and help authorities keep track of outbreaks. Ghana appears to be leading the way in the continent’s fight against the pandemic and in the process is doing the continent proud.
David Owusu-Yianoma, barrister of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple and Ghana Bar Association, 12 Old Square.