Ghana has attracted commendation for its swift response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. With the outbreak of the pandemic, the government prioritized the 3 Ts – Testing, Tracing and Treatment, which helped towards curbing the spread of the pandemic. In this exclusive interview with Ghana’s Deputy Minister for Women Affairs and member of parliament, Hon. Freda Prempeh, she talks about the government’s response to the Pandemic and the role of parliaments in containing COVID-19 in Africa. Excerpts:

As a member of Parliament and as part of your support for the less privileged members of the community, you presented palliatives to members of the Kumasi and other municipalities. Tell us more about your outreaches during the COVID-19 Pandemic and how your constituents are coping?

In times of crisis like this one, women and the underprivileged are the worst hit. For the ministry of Women, Children and social protection, we deal with the vulnerable groups in the society. When I talk about the vulnerable, we are talking about the women, the children, those young people who sell things on the roadside and the young girls who hawk on the street and those taking care of the elderly.

For us, I see our ministry as a problem-solving ministry, which is not just about school feeding. We deal with issues of rape, human trafficking, early child marriage, teenage pregnancies, among others. The objectives of supporting such groups are to stop them from deepening vulnerability and to protect them, so theta their current situation doesn’t deteriorate.

I must say our outreach was very successful, and it also gave me the first-hand experience to see how the distribution of food was managed. Some of my observation was as follows: I coordinated the delivery with the regional coordinating council, social welfare officers, faith-based groups, and district and metropolitan officers. In this way, we were able to reach out to a lot of vulnerable people at the grass-root. We did the cooking at the various constituencies to observe the lockdown and Kumasi has about 47 constituencies, but only 14 of those constituencies were part of the lockdown enclave.

So, what happened was that the President, in his wisdom, decided to give raw food as well to these vulnerable groups apart from the cooked meals. We gave them fresh food and also gave them daily meals. Some of the challenges that we had were with the sharing. Some people thought that they had to be part of whatever that was going on, even passerby wanted to be part of the sharing. If these people were not supported, many of them might not have been able to survive this lockdown period. So our outreaches focused on the needy groups, which was drawn through mapping and the data made available to us by the Ghana Statistics Bureau.

We supported widows, disabled, orphaned, single moms, and generally those living in poverty, including those in slumps. My outreach aimed at providing them with emergency food items and a safety net during this period. It is difficult to tell a hungry person to stay at home, that’s why we had to reach out to them. For them, the fear of COVID-19 is nothing before a decimal point. Though a lot of information has gone out to people, we needed to also engage with them at the grassroots to get immediate feedback. Some of them have had about the virus, but very ignorant about the real issues and magnitude of the danger. The need to survive was more of the pressing issue than coronavirus. I am happy that I was able to address some of the urgent needs.

Working in the 14 constituencies was very exciting, and I am happy that I was able to touch the lives of people in these places. Ghanaian are very resilient and creative when it comes to coping with difficulties. My constituents are drawing from their inner strength in addition to our palliatives. Our provisions have ranged from health essentials like PPEs to foods supplies. The government, on their part, has made an excellent intervention, but, one major problem that we have had at the grassroots level is the breach of social distancing. People think that its nothing to talk about. The security operatives have stepped in also to help us, and I believe with time, we will get them to comply. We also educated our market women that every time you touch money, they try as much as possible to wash and clean their hands. We are also working with Hairdressers who are in the business of handling humans, that they must put up some protocols for those who are using their services. I must also say that our President has been very proactive. He closed the borders in time, and this has helped in shielding the country from what would have been a disaster.

How would you rate your government’s response to COVID-19 since the outbreak, especially it affects women?

We have always known our President to be someone who supports women and children. He has still paid attention to the needs of women and children. The way he has handled this Pandemic has been phenomenal and has earned him the name Oba Tampa Nana Ado. He gave a directive to the gender ministry on how to distribute the food for the vulnerable members of society. We were providing one daily meal initially, but a lot of people trooped to the ministry to request for raw food. To prevent the spread of the virus, the government has acted proactively by shutting our borders and travellers at the airport, were not only tested but put under mandatory quarantine at the cost of the government for 14 days. The government has also focused on the 3 Ts, which is testing, tracing and treatment and that has been working very well. The Minister of information has been providing a daily update on the virus. Those who have tested positive were quickly isolated for treatment. Imagine what would have happened if the government hadn’t acted fast by identifying and isolating the infected people. The President took the bold decision to locate and quarantine about 1080 people. Ghana is arguable the only country in Africa to have conducted more than 80,000 tests. It has been ranked number one in Africa for administrating test per million people. The government has also activated aggressive contact tracing. The government was also proactive in banning all gatherings. Churches, mosques, parties, funerals, games and all other meetings have been prohibited. Transport operators have also been advised to operate with a limited number of passengers, to enforce social distancing. Fighting the virus will have to be a collective responsibility. No single ministry can do it alone. The President, in his wisdom, has put together an inter-ministerial committee, comprising of the department of transport, local government, gender, and health. The ministry of local government along with the metropolitan and district assembly, has so far disinfected several markets across the country and implemented measures to ensure the maintenance of enhanced hygienic practice in the markets and lorry parks. Washing buckets and soaps have become standard features in our markets. They have even moved a step further to disinfect the senior high schools across the country. I understand that universities will also be covered. I must commend the President, because immediately when the Pandemic broke out, he closed down all schools in the country. The ministry is currently coordinating with the MDC to disinfect the schools. The three weeks lockdown of Accra, Kasuwa and the Greater Kumasi districts to contain the virus. The President has gone ahead to provide free water and electricity for the poorest of the poor and 50% reduction in electricity bills for other households. There has also been the provision of small loans to small and medium scale businesses to ensure they stay in business, within this period. Ghana has a lot of success stories to tell regarding the fight against the Pandemic.

The President in his last address to the nation said that its time Africa came up with its vaccine and we are working very hard towards that. We are honoured to have a very renowned professor who is chairing that project. I must also commend the Minister of health and the presidential adviser on health and everyone for their roles. We want to ensure that we can curb the spread of this Pandemic, because of its deadly nature and no respecter of persons. The President has said it time and again that no one should politicize the Pandemic. The President also provided leadership and inspired local companies to innovate and come up with products that can help our people cope with the challenges of the present. Some companies branched out into the production of hand sanitizers. He also provided a 50% increase in salary for nurses and doctors to motivate them. A lot of people are producing local face masks and creating jobs for our teeming youths and tailors. So far, the President has given us direction, and if we can adhere to the protocol and maintain social distancing, we will be safe. Though the numbers are currently going up, I believe that if it had not been for the President’s proactive interventions, we would have been more exposed.

Just last year, Ghana hosted the year of the return. How successful was this initiative?

It was a great success. It provided an excellent opportunity for our brothers and sisters in the diaspora to connect with their roots and historical heritage. Many of them had only read about their journey to the west in Books, but, through this initiative, they have been able to have first-hand experience. For many of our friends who came for the year of return, they were amazed, and it was an emotional homecoming for the majority of them. Most of them broke down when they visited the ports in the central region. They saw where their great-great-grandfathers pushed through slavery and where they passed through. It was also an opportunity for the diaspora and those at home to have some bilateral collaborations. A lot of people came to realize that there are a lot of things they can tap from Africa and Ghana in particular. It also brought substantial economic benefits for our traders as more people benefited from the trade boom.

Ghana is predominantly and informal sector economy, so the year of return helped this sector a lot. It provided an opportunity for integration as some of the visitors had to stay in the local communities rather than staying in hotels. It was a significant boost for both the informal and the formal sector because the major hotels also had their share of the benefits of the initiative. Every facet of the Ghanaian economy was affected by the year of return.

Ghana made history as the first country in Africa to do this, and we made a lot of foreign exchange. We hope that other African countries will emulate something like this and try to plan along this line. It is indeed an excellent initiative, and we are looking forward to consolidating. This year we are looking forward to building upon it, but with this Pandemic, we will have to restrategize.

We are looking forward to Beyond the Return.

Women and children are no doubt part of the most vulnerable, especially during this Pandemic. As the Deputy Minister of Women Affairs, what plans are in place to safeguard these groups of people?

Social protection is one of the core mandates of our ministry; we are trying to move people from the poverty line. We also have the livelihood empowerment program, which is also a policy of the department. The Statistical services have just completed a survey which mapped out households in the poverty trap, and we intend to use this method to improve on the social protection programs. We have decided to move to the communities and have a dialogue with those affected. We are going into the community to hear from them and solicit their input and use the feedback to shape policy and decision making. We are trying to make sure that women who are the gatekeepers of the family are carried along in the project. We are working on the affirmative action bill and the school feeding program. We are also working on the aged-bill and others. Our ministry is problem-solving, dealing with defilement, rape teenage pregnancy, human trafficking, child trafficking, early marriages and all that. We also handle domestic and gender-based violence, and we see these issues daily.

COVID-19 Pandemic is having a different impact on gender. It is a public health issue and causing economic crisis as well. The gender dimension of the impact of the Pandemic cannot be played down at all. The Pandemic is having a toll on young girls, especially women who will have to care for their families and the physically challenged people. We have received numerous complaints of gender-based violence as against family bonding during this lockdown. It’s an interesting scenario, because, while somewhere happy that lockdown will provide time for bonding, some have been complaining of molestation and other forms of domestic violence. So, we look at how pandemic induced lockdown has increased economic issues as well as gender-based violence for women. It is also having a toll on the family, and women are at the receiving end because they have to care for the children, husband, aged parents, among others. In some families, it’s the women that are the breadwinners, and you find that some of the women have been stretched. It was quite prudent for the President to step in and provide food for the less vulnerable members The Parliament Union, APU, and we are also members of the ECOWAS parliament and the Pan – African Parliament. We are also members of the international parliamentary Union. So, it’s a collective effort, and we all have to compare notes and coordinate with each other and see how the dynamics of our countries can apply to we do. It is imperative to note that as much was; we are hopeful that the Pandemic will be kicked out of the continent, but things will no longer be the same. We have to put systems in place to ensure that we reach out to our parliaments across Africa. The Pandemic is affecting bilateral trade, affecting businesses across sub-Saharan Africa and the globe. We see job losses in the formal and informal sectors, and this is a severe issue. We are also losing our social lives in terms of public gathering and congregation in churches, funerals and other social groups. Before the Pandemic, we used to attend exchange programmes with other sister parliaments, and some others also come down to Ghana on a training program. All these things have changed, and we have to find a way of getting back together – be it virtual or through any other means. Here in Ghana, when the Pandemic broke out, there was a circular that was issued that all travels have been suspended and those who were out had to be called back. We strictly observed all the protocols of handwashing and sanitizers before you enter the chambers. We tried as much as possible to keep the social distancing even in the house.

So, it’s a worrying situation, and this Pandemic is affecting our healthcare system. It is also disrupting our economic values and everything you can think of. I think the Parliament will need the support of the international community, especially the World Health Organization. We also need to see how best to implement the protocols by WHO. For the impact of Social Distancing, it is something we are all dealing with across the globe, and we need to evolve strategies to sustain these debates across the continent in our countries. Parliaments in countries like Egypt has already put some systems in place, but, for us, in Ghana, we are currently on recess, and upon resumption, we will see what other protocols will be put in place. The Pandemic has also brought some positives, in that it has brought some unity among member states. The continent is working together to come up with a vaccine. We are all in the situation together. The Pandemic is spreading so fast and currently in about 185 countries, making it a global threat – posing a huge challenge for governments, parliaments and individuals. The most important thing for all of us it to take steps to reduce the danger of COVID-19, and looking at the economic impact of the Pandemic as well. We all have to put our heads together since we are fighting a common enemy. All hands should be on deck. We have to collaborate and coordinate to see how best to deal with this Pandemic. As parliamentarians, our core mandate is to legislate and play an oversight function on how our monies are spent especially at the executive level and lobby for projects to our communities and represent our various communities in the Parliament. Parliamentarians must as a matter of necessity contribute their quarter by way of education, sensitization and donation of palliatives and PPEs to your constituency so that together, we can fight this Pandemic.