Elizabeth Ohene writes: In order of priority

BY: Elizabeth Ohene
Elizabeth Ohene
Elizabeth Ohene

At the beginning of the year, I was having a conversation with a friend about what Ghana and Africa should do to enable us to make this elusive breakthrough to economic success.

My friend said the most important people in the world were hedge fund managers and structured finance lawyers and we needed them to like Ghana.

Apparently, these are the people who decide where the trillions of dollars, said to be sloshing around the world, go. If they buy your bonds at a good rate and do not sell-off at the whiff of the slightest trouble, you are in good standing. Their say-so makes a difference between what rate you can borrow at and whether you would be lent any money at all or you would be classified as a basket case.

Three months after this conversation, I would be very surprised if hedge fund managers would show up on anybody’s list of the most important people, never mind, structured finance lawyers, whoever they are.

Order or priority

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has changed everything in our world and with it, the order of priority that we all set on things.

Now health and health workers in general top every list; doctors, nurses and all allied health workers are the most important people in the world. We can’t find enough laudatory words to praise them for putting their lives at risk for all of us.

It is in pursuit of this that the President of our Republic recently moved to demonstrate the gratitude of the government and people of Ghana to the health workers.

He announced that those “on the frontline of the battle against COVID-19”, would be given some monetary rewards with tax rebates.

This announcement led to an uproar about the definition of those who would be deemed to be on the frontline and, therefore, qualified to be recipients of the monetary rewards.

Who is on the frontline and where is the frontline in the many battles against COVID-19? Nurses, doctors, receptionists, laboratory technicians, anaesthetists, pharmacists, cleaners, ambulance drivers, everybody who has anything to do with a health establishment. Would that cover the frontline?

What about those at the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (NMIMR) and the other testing centres who have been conducting the tests and those who man the call centres and make sure they calm down those who phone in a panic; and is anybody really suggesting that the officials at the Ministry in charge of policy formulation are not on the frontline?

As I was compiling this list, my mind went back to a similar uproar that erupted among health workers some years back when a decision was made to pay something called Additional Duty Hours Allowance (ADHA).

It started off as something to be paid to the young doctors who complained about working for long hours non-stop. By the time the argument was sorted, almost everybody who worked in the health service was classified as being entitled to ADHA.

At this time, it is not really acceptable to say anything uncomplimentary about anyone who works in the health sector. But I cannot resist the argument that was advanced for why gardeners employed in the hospitals should be included in the ADHA pay-out.

The point was made forcefully that the best time to water flowers, lawns, shrubs, gardens generally was after 5 pm and that, therefore, placed gardeners in the health service firmly in the ADHA group.


I do not envy whoever is deciding where the frontline is and who qualifies as being on the frontline. The best of luck to whoever will leave out the laundry and mortuary attendants from being classified as frontline workers.

If an establishment runs a 12-hour shift, it means there has to be arrangements for food and try excluding the cooks and waiters from the frontline designation. The bus drivers that bring the various groups of health workers to their places of work, the people who make sure that PPE are available.

What about those who work throughout the night to ensure that the supermarket shelves are stocked when a nurse wants a loaf of bread first thing in the morning or the last thing at night, do they qualify as frontliners?

Once you go down this thread, you discover you have to review not only your list of important people and professions, it leads inexorably to the futility of the saving lives versus saving the economy argument. It is not an either this or that situation.

My priority

A lot has been said and written about the poor and disadvantaged in our society not being overawed by the threat of COVID-19, because they see hunger as a bigger and more immediate threat.

The health service exemplifies the reality of life better than anything else; it takes all sorts of people, with varying skills, to work together to care for the sick. The work of the best consultant in the hospital can be reduced to naught if the testing procedure in the laboratory fails or the equipment is not properly sterilised.

In much the same way, businesses do not operate in a vacuum, they need employees, they need customers, and these customers and employees have to be healthy to be of any use to the business.

The famed economy we all speak of, depends on consumers just as much as producers. We can open the shops and markets, but without customers, they won’t thrive.

The restaurants and little eateries which form the base of the economy in the urban areas can open, but unless we manage to get ourselves into the New Zealand situation and get rid of the COVID-19 and restore confidence in the general health of the people, they won’t thrive. Nobody is going to restaurants to eat wearing a mask, no matter how fashionable the mask is.

The President is making the point that he will not let this crisis go to waste and has announced a large health facility building programme. Within a year, some 94 hospitals will be built around the country and we will be able to say that something good came out of this nightmare.

The pandemic certainly exposed many of our shortcomings; lack of health facilities is one of them, but it is not on top of my list.

What this pandemic exposed about us is the fact that we have a hygiene problem. Many communities do not have access to potable water, so many people do not have toilets and the simple act of washing of hands poses great difficulties to many people.

On my list of priorities would be the provision of running water for all communities, toilets in every home and the modernisation of the markets. We have a hygiene problem that will not be cured by building a hospital in every town.

But above all, I submit that the biggest exposure COVID-19 did of our society was the need for education. I believe the President’s original mantra that he came to office with, is still valid: education, education, education. That should top our priority.