Our New Normal

“The time truly has passed for us to ask if we emerged too soon. It’s time for us to re-learn how to navigate our new world as it is, with caution, and to see what more 2020 has to offer us.”

All in all, pandemics get a pretty bad big screen representation. Let’s take the movie Contagion for instance, or even World War Z (yes that was still a pandemic even though it had zombies). By the thirty-minute mark society had devolved into chaos, with mass casualty, violence, riots and a gun-toting populace fighting for survival. 

With the tendency for life to imitate art, I’m sure these are some of the images that came into our minds when the World Health Organisation declared the novel coronavirus infection a pandemic on March 11th, 2020. The fear in those early days was almost palpable, and it seemed like it might go the way of the movies for a while, with the initial panic buying and isolated incidents of violence.

Now, some of those fears seem overblown. In this real live world, in this real live pandemic, I woke up, made myself a cup of tea, and decided to use my day off to go grocery shopping. I looked up a recipe for garlic sauce and downloaded an app to help me track my running, which I’d taken up – somewhat unsuccessfully – in place of the gym (sweaty, close contact and pandemics don’t mix well). I checked the news, as I always did, for the latest happenings around the world. Very little of the violence or fires or riots I read about were directly pandemic related. There was nothing about zombies either.  Things certainly aren’t getting better; in fact, they are far worse now than when Ghana’s first COVID-19 cases were confirmed on 12th March 2020. I lived more in fear of the coronavirus pandemic when the country had 100 cases than now, when we have over 40,000.

It’s not just me.

Armed with face masks and hand sanitisers of varying, and sometimes questionable quality, Ghanaians have firmly left the age of quarantine behind them. Security men still check temperatures at the gate and spray visitors’ hands with drizzles of sanitiser. Restaurants boast of more spacious seating plans, students are confronting final examinations, and seating restrictions in public transport have been firmly abolished. Here we are, living as close to normal as we have been able to muster. 

And it’s not just us.

Economists have estimated that the coronavirus pandemic will cause a 0.5% drop in global real GDP growth this year, which, on the surface, doesn’t seem like much. In monetary terms, however, that represents 76.69 billion US dollars. And that’s the best-case scenario. Another report from the Asian Development Bank states that economic losses could be up to 8.8 trillion dollars worldwide. A report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa states that the GDP for our continent is expected to drop by at least 1.4% in the best-case scenario, and by 2.6% in the worst-case scenario.  This has the potential to push 27 million Africans into extreme poverty.  In Ghana, GDP growth could fall by as much as 5.3%. Even in these early days, many people have lost jobs or have had salary cuts due to macroeconomic drops in demand, wait-and-see purchase delays by customers and investment delays by firms (and make no mistake, these are still early days).  Economies around the world have taken a hit and will continue to for quite some time, leaving governments desperate to reclaim as much normalcy as they possibly can and prevent what could be catastrophic circumstances to their citizens. The idea of waiting till the entire episode is behind us and rebuilding our economies sounds ideal, but in the fast-paced world we live in, it just might be suicide.

On 16th April, in the third week of lockdown in two of Ghana’s major cities, Ghana’s Finance Minister penned an article in the Financial Times by the title, “What does an African Finance Minister do now?” where he bemoaned a largely informal economy trapped at home, mounting debt and creditors snapping at our collective heels. The entire article can be summed up in a single statement: “we really are running out of money here.” 

Three days later, the President declared that the lockdown had been lifted, and laid out the first guidelines for opening the economy back up. Ghana is hardly alone in easing restrictions on its citizens. All over the world countries are easing up on lockdowns, opening businesses and telling their citizens that if they follow some rules, it just might be okay to come outside. But is it?

On the 13th of April the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus outlined six criteria for countries to meet to consider lifting restrictions for its citizens. He listed controlled transmission, a health system well-equipped to treat every case and trace contacts, and communities that are fully educated and empowered to adjust to our “new normal.” 

On 19th April, when the lockdown on two of Ghana’s major cities were lifted, the total number of cases stood at 1042. The total number of cases as of the time of writing stands at 41,847. This doesn’t exactly scream controlled transmission. Currently, 223 people have died in Ghana from COVID-19. The low mortality rate is an often-touted rationale for lifting restrictions, and while this is not an argument without merit, we must ask ourselves if our health system is truly equipped to do the absolute best by the citizens we expose to infection by relaxing restrictions. Not just the bare minimum “best I can do under the circumstances”, but the absolute very best. 

We must reject the temptation to face this disease in terms of numbers alone and remember that 223 families in Ghana have been confronted with loss. We all have an obligation to keep that number as low as we can.

There are those who might say that it is unfortunate that we have left the fear of the early days behind, when every single digit increase in cases evoked substantial alarm, but I am not one of them. In truth, fear is rarely useful in pandemics (or in life). It has fuelled panic, encouraged selfishness and hoarding, and brought forward some of our worst traits. In place of fear I would rather we chose caution.

A systematic review published by The Lancet on 1st June found that physical distancing of at least one metre is more effective in preventing infection than face masks and eye protection, and that these may however provide added protection. WHO still maintains that hand hygiene – washing hands with soap and under running water for at least 20 seconds, and using alcohol-based hand sanitiser when water is unavailable – is one of the most effective measures to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. It is these measures that should guide us as we venture out into our businesses and schools, and that should continue to guide us as we settle into the long haul and make lasting changes.

If the first two months of this pandemic taught us anything, it is that it is possible for all humans to change. It is possible for us to drastically alter our habits and lifestyles in the face of a real threat. And if the last three months have taught us anything, it is that the problems of society will not disappear or wait for it to be completely safe for us to emerge from our homes. 

The time truly has passed for us to ask if we emerged too soon. It’s time for us to re-learn how to navigate our new world as it is, with caution, and to see what more 2020 has to offer us. 

Personally, I’m still not ruling out zombies.

Published in the print edition of the September 2020, Awards issue of the EMY Africa Magazine, with the headline “Our New Normal.”

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