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COVID-19, Its Religious and Political Impact on Ghana: A Political-Theological Perspective

Preamble

There is no doubt that the attention of almost every single person in the world today is firmly focused on the novel Corona Viral Infectious Disease (COVID-19) pandemic raging across the globe. The corona virus disease, the first case of which was reported in Wuhan, China, in December last year, has spread rapidly and exponentially to all parts of the world, bringing in its wake untold fear, panic and anxiety and unbelievable havoc, infections and deaths among people. As at the time of writing this article, the global statistics indicate that the virus has infected around 2.4 million people across the world, with more than 610,000 recoveries and about 170, 000 deaths.

Currently, the worst affected countries in the world are the USA, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, the UK and mainland China. Despite many reported cases across Africa, the continent of Africa for now does not seem to have been badly hit by the virus, but experts particularly from the World Health Organization (WHO), are warning that the African continent risks becoming the next epicenter of the pandemic. This is a scary prediction worth taking note of by all African Governments and leaders of our continent.

Today, in an effort to halt the further rapid spread of the virus, all countries in the world have instituted various measures including but not limited to social distancing of people, the closure of schools and non-essential businesses, as well as lockdowns of cities and towns with people asked to stay at home. At the moment, nobody in the world knows when the corona virus situation will be “over” for life to return to normal, but as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the topmost US doctor on infectious diseases says, the world will never return to “normal life,” namely, the life of the pre-corona period, because the virus has come to stay with us. Thus, it is important for all people in the world to begin to embrace themselves for the “new normal” life in the post-corona virus pandemic period which will inevitably see enhanced hand sanitization, regular screening of people at airports, schools, sporting and other major events where crowds gather in numbers, and (limited) observance of social distancing protocol, among other measures. Thus, the bottom line is that life will never be the same after the corona virus ebbs away.

COVID-19 and the Ghanaian Context: An Overview

Like all countries in the world, Ghana is also affected by the outbreak of the corona virus disease. Since the first case of the virus was reported in Ghana on March 12 this year, Ghana has recorded till date 1,042 cases, with 99 recoveries and nine deaths. According to Hon. Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, the Minister of Information, the accurate statistics on the virus has been made possible due to the quarantining of travelers into the country, and enhanced testing and tracing of contacts. It is predicted that these statistics will change in the days, weeks and months ahead.

On March 15, H. E. Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, the President of the Republic, made his first public address on the situation of the virus to the nation. In that address, the President announced the banning of all social gatherings and meetings, including weddings, Church and other religious services, for a period of two weeks, making an exception only for the holding of private funerals with a maximum of 25 people in attendance. In five subsequent addresses, the President further outlined various other measures which have seen the closure of all the country’s borders (air, land and sea), and the implementation of partial lockdown measures in Accra, Tema, Kasoa and Kumasi. The partial lockdown measures in the above-mentioned cities and towns have since April 19 been lifted with the seventh address of the President, prompting some residents in these areas to pour into the streets to jubilate. Ghana’s borders however remain closed just as the ban on social gatherings.

In its effort to give some relief to all citizens as they spend most time staying at home within this period, the Government has absorbed water bills for the months of April, May and June, and 50 percent of electricity tariffs within the same period. Additionally, frontline health workers have been given a special life insurance cover package as an incentive for the risks they face and the sacrifices they are making to the challenge at hand while a fund for soft loans has been established for businesses to access it.

Following the above relief packages, numerous calls have also been made for the Government to consider absorbing house rents and for data cost to be reduced. These calls have not yet been granted, but there is still time for them to be considered depending on how the situation unfolds in the days and weeks ahead.

Impact of COVID-19 Epidemic and the Ghanaian Situation

As every country in the world continues to examine their corona virus situations in order to put in place measures to mitigate and deal with the spread of the virus within their jurisdictions, one cannot discount the serious impact the pandemic continues to have on the religious, social, economic and political life of all peoples across the globe. In Ghana, as elsewhere, the impact of the corona virus disease on the different dimensions of the life of citizens within the period has been enormous and very significant.

In the discussion below, I propose to examine briefly the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the religious and political dimensions of life in the Ghanaian context.

A. The Religious Impact of COVID-19: The Ghanaian Context

Within the context of the raging epidemic, the role of God and religion has come into sharp focus. Many people, believers and non-believers alike, continue to ask themselves pertinent questions: “Where is (our) God in the midst of this pandemic?” “Is God good all the time or just some of the time?” “Is God all- powerful?” “Does God care for His people especially in times like these?” Thus, many people continue to battle with these and other similar questions in their minds each and every day.

From the standpoint of religion, I believe that no quick answers can and will suffice to respond adequately to these questions and similar ones, but the important point to note here is that no amount of evil or suffering can detract from the goodness and omnipotence of God. The Christian Bible teaches that God did not spare His only Son but allowed him to suffer and die for humanity’s sake (Rom. 8:32) and that “by his wounds, we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). As a Christian, I believe that God is more than capable of turning this situation and indeed, every situation around for our good, and of ultimately saving all of humanity from this and any other pandemic. Therefore, at no point in time is there the need for anyone to despair. Instead, everybody ought to continue to hope and pray for the best while at the same time adhering to all health and safety precautions to help halt the spread of the virus. The corona virus disease can and will be defeated not only by faith and prayer, but also by doing the right things at the right time.

Ghana is a highly religious country with over 90 percent of the population professing faith in God and Allah. It is therefore not strange that one of the first things the President of Ghana did following the announcement of the first case of the corona virus disease in the country was to call together selected senior members of the Christian clergy in the country to the Jubilee House, the Seat of Government, for a Breakfast Meeting and Prayer. This meeting which took place on March 19, enabled the Religious leaders of our country to pray for the President and his Government, our health workers, as well as victims and their families, and to seek God’s intervention for an antidote to the virus. Two days later, Muslim leaders were also invited to the same venue for the same purpose.

A few days after the Breakfast Prayer meetings took place, the President also declared March 25 as a National Day of Fasting and Prayer, inviting all citizens to offer prayers and engage in acts of fasting to ask for God’s help to protect our country and the world, and for God to save us from the pandemic. What is encouraging is that the President indicated that his invitation to citizens to pray and fast was not to be a stand-alone activity but was to be accompanied by strict adherence to safety measures and precautions outlined to curtail the pandemic.

While most citizens rightly praised the above initiatives of the President, a few dissenting critics criticized the above initiatives as unnecessary and irrelevant to the fight against the disease. I think that since religion plays an important role in the lives of many Ghanaians, people of faith must be granted their freedom to demonstrate their faith especially in this difficult period of massive uncertainty.

It is interesting to note that the presence of the corona virus disease in Ghana seems to have given some ammunition to some Ghanaians who have for some time now been unhappy with some pastors and ministers of God in the country owing to various reasons, including their doomsday prophecies, “strange” miracles and irreverent display of affluence and wealth. These critics have seized the opportunity brought by the corona virus outbreak to ridicule some of these pastors and prophets for their inability to predict the outbreak of the disease in the country (and the world) and their impotence to heal the victims of the disease. These critics argue that the corona virus disease has exposed many Ghanaian pastors and ministers of God as fake.

In my candid opinion, I think that these criticisms are unwarranted and needless. I believe that at this time of the day, what is needed is not baseless criticisms and ridicule but an all-hands-on-deck approach to deal with the raging virus in our midst. Having said this, let me now proceed to do a quick evaluation of the impact of the corona virus disease on the practice of religion in Ghana, in both its positive and negative dimensions.

a). “Positive” Impact of the Corona Virus Pandemic on Religion in Ghana

Positively, the presence of the corona virus in Ghana has reminded Christian churches and their members of the fact that God is Spirit, and as such, is not confined to Church buildings but must be worshipped everywhere in spirit and truth (Jn. 4:24). Jesus also teaches that, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst” (Matt. 18:20). God can be worshipped everywhere and every place where two or three people gather in His name.

In addition, the current situation of the virus has encouraged Churches to return to the example of the early Christian church whose members used to worship in houses, in “home churches” where they spent time together in prayer, in the sharing of the Word of God and the breaking of bread (the Eucharist) (Acts 2:4). Churches and their members today must have come to the realization that the family is the first Church, the domestic Church, where the faith is first transmitted by grandparents and parents to children. Christians should know that grandparents and parents are the first teachers of the faith. Each family by now should realise that in the absence of the coming together of the members of the Church, they can within their own families, pray together, read the Bible together and share their meals together. This is something that has been probably missing in many Christian homes although one cannot dismiss the very many good examples of many families who read the Bible and pray together even prior to the corona virus outbreak.

Furthermore, the presence of the corona virus in Ghana as elsewhere has prompted Christian churches to begin to explore the use of modern technology and means of communication especially provided by the social media to reach out to congregants in their mission of evangelization. Today, most Churches and Church leaders are taking advantage of the incredible opportunities offered by the social communication platforms to minister to their members both far and near. After all, when Jesus Christ says that what his disciples hear in the dark, they must speak in the light and what they hear whispered to them, they must shout from the rooftops (Matt. 10: 27; Lk. 12:3), he was inviting his disciples then and the Church now, to explore every appropriate means to communicate and disseminate his gospel. The corona virus has taught the Church the lesson that the modern means of communication may have their own defects but at the same time they can serve as useful tools for ministering the Gospel to the world today. This is a lesson worth following up on even after the pandemic is done away with.

Finally, many Churches and Church organizations have stepped up their ministry of charity by donating food and other relief items to feed the poor and the needy in the Ghanaian society. Many Churches have made substantial donations to health institutions and the COVID-19 Trust Fund set up by the Government. This is commendable but I think it is important that in making such donations to Government, institutions, individuals and groups, the Churches do not forget the poor in their midst because sometimes, these acts of charity are made for the sake of publicity while the poor members of our Churches are left unattended to. This ought to change.

b). Negative Impact of Corona Virus on Religion in Ghana

On the negative side of things, there is no doubt that current pandemic has adversely affected and totally disrupted Church services, activities and programmes even as Churches continue to remain closed in Ghana. Happening during the Lenten period leading to the Easter Season, the presence of the corona virus has been doubly difficult for most Christians who use such periods to renew themselves and their faith in God through numerous spiritual activities including prayers, fasting, recollections and retreats, among others. It is thus understandable that most Ghanaian Christians consider this year’s Easter as an Easter to forget, being the first time that they have been compelled to miss inspiring Easter conventions and services, such as Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.

Additionally, one cannot easily forget the fact that most if not all Church offerings and collections have not been taken in the absence of Church services during this period. Outside the Christmas and New Year seasons, Easter is considered by many Ghanaian Churches as of their “cocoa seasons” owing to the large attendance of people at the various services and the “huge” offerings and collections that come with such attendances. In the absence of congregations in the Churches and the taking of offerings and collections, the corona virus has undoubtedly thrown most Church budgets out of the window, and even though a few Churches have tried to innovate ways to collect their offerings through the use of mobile money apps and other such platforms, the impact cannot be the same. I daresay that as long as the current situation persists, some Churches may soon be compelled to revise their budget notes to deal with the harsh reality of missing out on needed collections necessary to pay for utilities and the upkeep of their priests, pastors and ministers.

Finally, in terms of negative impact, no one can dismiss the reality of the sense of fear and anxiety among some Churches and their leaders with regard to whether their members will return to the Churches when all this is over hopefully in the not too distant future. In the context of this fear and anxiety, Churches and their leaders can only hope and pray that their flock will not go missing in the post-corona virus period but will return to their fold safe, sound and healthy.

These are by no means exhaustive of the religious impact the corona virus situation is having on the practice of religion in Ghana, but I believe they constitute substantially the most important impact worth commenting on.

B. Political Impact of COVID-19 on the Ghanaian Situation

Politically, the presence of the corona virus disease in Ghana has taught us that viruses have no political colour and preference, and that despite people’s political differences, citizens of one nation can always come together as one people with a common destiny to fight a common cause and battle a common enemy. It is in this regard that I consider the meeting of the President with the leaders of the various political parties in the country on April 3 this year as timely and most appropriate. That meeting sent an important signal of the President’s willingness to engage with and listen to other opinions on the way forward for handling the situation at hand. The meeting also served as an important reminder and invitation to all citizens on the need to put aside political considerations for now as we all join our efforts to work together to overcome the corona virus situation.

One of the first things the opposition NDC party did following news of the outbreak of the corona virus in the country was to set up a Corona Virus Committee to assist the Government on the way forward for tackling the pandemic is worthy of commendation. While some suspect that this move as an attempt to divert attention and even subvert Government’s efforts for political purposes, I think on the contrary that the move was a step in the right direction if intended to compliment Government’s efforts in the handling of the pandemic since all hands need to be on deck. I was thus pleased to hear the former Deputy Minister of Health, Hon. Alexander A. Abban, say that the Government welcomed the NDC Committee and was willing to work with them.

Within this period also, we are witnessing the efforts of the former President, Mr. John D. Mahama, going round the country spreading love and hope, and making substantial donations of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), face masks, sanitizers and other relief items to various hospitals and clinics, and to the poor and needy. These efforts I believe are compliments to those of the Government of the day, and all Ghanaians must see and commend them as such just as we must see and commend all other donations being made by persons in active politics. People are free though to speculate on other motives best known to them; no one can compel anybody not to speculate.

Many Ghanaians have also been impressed with the appointment of Hon. Bernard Okoe Boye as the new Deputy Minister of Health, as well as the working together of the MPs of both the NDC and the NPP in fast tracking his vetting process. Dr. Okoe Boye’s appointment has been widely received as a step in the right direction and we can only pray and hope that he will bring his vast experience in public health to bear on the situation at hand. I think that this act of working together which has seen some NDC and NPP persons sharing food together in some places should be replicated in the various constituencies in the country. This will greatly enhance unity and cohesion and further minimize and even remove suspicions and tendency of political hawks to trivialize and politicise every single issue in the country.

While many good things are happening politically amidst the country’s battle against the corona pandemic in our land, a few other things constitute a cause for worry and these must be dealt with and stopped quickly. Over the period, there has been a lot of praise-singing particularly from the camps of the NPP and their supporters regarding the various interventions being put in place by Government to handle the virus situation to bring relief to citizens. This has got to stop because they do not in any way help the country to stay focused to do what must be done, but feeds into the hands of those who want to score cheap political points. In the same way, the proclivity of some members of the opposition NDC party to reference the use of health facilities put up by the previous Government for handling corona virus patients today as well as references to how the former administration dealt with the Ebola disease when it broke in 2014 is not what Ghana needs at this moment, and so ought to stop. The unverified accusations regarding the use of party cards for food distribution to the poor have also got to stop because they do not help nobody. What will help the country going forward is not the needless politicization of this pandemic but concrete proposals and recommendations to resolve the crisis at hand. Our politicians should give Ghanaians a break from the business-as-usual politics and help all of us to stay focused on what we have on our hands. The corona politics must therefore stop.

Politically also, the corona virus pandemic continues to threaten to derail the intentions and resolve of the Jean Mensah led Electoral Commission to compile a new Voters Register for use in the upcoming December 2020 Presidential and parliamentary elections. Due to the lack of knowledge regarding when the corona virus will be over, it seems that the Electoral Commission is beginning to consider the possibility of softening its stance on the matter of compiling a new Register. I think it would make a lot of sense for all stakeholders to continue to engage on the way forward so that some consensus or compromise solution can be reached.

As far as the parliamentary primaries to choose remaining candidates for election to Parliament as well as campaigns of presidential candidates for the upcoming elections are concerned, I think that only time and the dynamics of the corona virus situation will tell. Till then, we can only hope and pray that all goes well, and that our politicians will be wise kind enough not to use the situation of the current pandemic to do their usual “politricks”.

 

Conclusion

The presence of the corona virus disease in the world today is one more painful reminder to humanity of how pandemics of this nature have over the years devastated the world and disrupted human life. Reports have it that pandemics of this nature have occurred in the 1720s, 1820s and 1920s. Thus, even though what we are experiencing today with the corona virus situation may not be said to be unprecedented, one may safely say that the impact is very much unprecedented because of globalization. Globalization offers an opportunity for all peoples of the world to realise their common humanity and destiny and to resolve from today onwards to work together in ways that promote harmony, brotherhood and progress among all peoples, irrespective of nationality, sex, gender and colour.

In sum, even after the corona virus pandemic ebbs away, the world will never be the same. Hopefully, humanity can and will learn some useful lessons from this current raging pandemic. This applies also to us who come from Ghana, our dear motherland.

 

Source : Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Abbey-Quaye, Duquesne University, Pa. 

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