Ghanaians are set to go to the polls on December 7 to elect a new president and representatives to the House of Parliament.
As expected, the streets are already awash with posters, loud campaign music and large crowds at campaign rallies hosted by candidates seeking votes from an electorate that has been battered by the impact of COVID-19.
Ghana is one of the four countries in West Africa scheduled to hold elections this year. The other countries are Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Despite the precautions that are still in place to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, campaigns are going on at a furious pace with the majority of the candidates seeking election ignoring the health and safety guidelines that the government has issued to stop the spread of the virus.
Among the guidelines are those asking citizens to observe social distancing when attending campaign rallies. Gatherings of any kind are also expected to be limited to not more than 200 people.
These guidelines have dampened the expectations of the candidates many of whom gauge their popularity or therefore success by the large crowds they attract as they curry favour with the electorate.
The huge political party rallies that are synonymous with election campaigns have become a casualty of the new guidelines. Instead, politicians are having to be resourceful and creative in their campaigns to gain the attention of the electorate.
Many of the candidates have resorted to actively using social media, texting and advertising on radio and television.
Many others have also started candidating house to house campaigns to avoid the risk of fall foul of the guidelines limiting gatherings to a maximum of 200 people. Although face-to-face meetings are discouraged, many of the candidates are also organising meetings with small groups of voters at the community level. Others are also holding in-person events despite the risks. These events are strictly by invitation, observing the safety protocols of wearing masks and ensuring social distancing.
The first casualty as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak was the registration process for the national identification card by the National Identification Authority. The national identification card, popularly known as “Ghana Card” was one of the identity cards to be used for the voter’s registration and people who did not have passports, needed the national identification card to be able to register.
Without the relevant card, the citizenry could not take part in the registration exercise by the EC to get their names into the voter register. The Electoral Commission (EC), made provision for two relatives to serve as guarantors to vouch for those who did not have the Ghana card and passport.
The EC also made room to make it possible for people with the Ghana Card to guarantee for others who did not have before they could register.
The ban on social gatherings also affected the planned activities of the Electoral -Commission in its quest to compile a fresh voter’s register. Though the EC published a time table to ensure that everybody above the age of 18, qualified to vote was registered, the onset of the COVID-19 disrupted the exercise.
After rescheduling the exercise on two occasions, as a result of the pandemic, the registration took place with all the safety measures put in place. Without a mask, an individual could not be registered at any of the centres.
According to a new Executive Instrument, E.I. 164, signed by the President, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, on June 15 2020, people who refuse to wear face masks in public could face jail terms of between four and 10 years or a fine of between GHS 1,200($2000) or a maximum GHS 6,000 ($1000) or both.
Also, hand washing facilities were placed at vantage points at the centres. There was also a supply of alcohol based hand sanitizers for use by the registration officials.
There was a massive rush for the voter identification card at the initial stages of the exercise leading to congestion in some of the centres, which in some cases resulted in lack of adherence to some of the COVID-19 safety protocols, particularly social distancing. To reduce congestion at the registration centres, the Electoral Commision introduced a digital queue management system.
Ghana is a pioneer country in the development, testing and deployment of the PanaBIOS system which is a Pan-African “safe reopening of countries” technology application developed as part of the African Union’s Open Corridor Initiative.
Ghana’s Electoral Commission is the first electoral management body in the world to implement a digital decongestion protocol based on a bio screening standard for electoral purposes.
The system, which was aimed at tackling mass gathering at the various voter registration centres across the country enabled applicants to book a slot in a ‘priority queue’ before they visited the premises to be registered.
This came after a series of concerns over the disregard for social distancing protocols during the registration process and the EC stated that the move was necessary to encourage the observance of safety protocols at the centres.
Between July and August, it registered 15,117,438 voters through an updated biometric system and tested potential protocols including the online queuing platform that helped to avoid crowds.
At the end of the voter registration exercise, a Deputy Commissioner of the EC, Dr Bossman Eric Asare said so far, as the EC was concerned, nobody was reported to have contracted the COVID-19 during the voters registration exercise. Going forward, he said all polling stations that recorded more than 700 persons during the voters registration exercise will be split into two; A and B during the 2020 general elections.
The decision, he said, was to ensure that long queues were reduced at the 6,000 polling centres that had more than 700 persons and also to avoid congestion.
For the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, the Electoral Commission said it will ensure heightened health protocols, such as social distancing, continuous disinfecting, and hand washing at the voting centres.
Each polling station will also have a COVID-19 ambassador, whose duty would be to ensure that all the COVID-19 safety measures —wearing of masks, handwashing- are observed.
Contrary to the government’s directive of practicing social distancing to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19, patrons of political party events have flouted this directive.
There have been concerns on social media and other traditional media platforms on how supporters of especially, the major two political parties- the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) have on several occasions, thrown caution to the dogs and disregarded all the COVID-19 safety protocols.
As the leaders of the political parties cris cross the country as part of their community tours, calling on traditional leaders and meeting their supporters, social distancing protocols and other COVID-19 safety protocols aimed at curbing the spread of the virus have been flouted.
Amidst the drumming, chanting of party anthems, waving of party flags, the party supporters are seen shouting, shaking hands, hugging and standing so close to each other with no breathing space for the politicians to even address them.
Apart from the major political actors, the bulk of their supporters are seen not wearing face masks and are also not adhering to social distancing. There are also no hand washing facilities with soap and water for the washing of hands when they march along the streets during the community tours as the politicians take to touting the crowds that line the streets when they visit various communities on official business.
The President of the Ghana Medical Association(GMA) Dr Frank Ankodea is concerned the activities of political parties could become vectors for the spread of COVID-19. He points to the wide scale of lackadaisical public posture and a general disregard for the COVID-19 safety protocols, especially during political activities, such as mini durbars and rallies.
Ghana, he said, was “not out of the woods yet” and therefore, Ghanaians must keep abiding by the COVID-19 protocols. To slow the spread of COVID-19, he said all persons must practice social distancing.That's because the virus can be transmitted between people who are in close contact with each other.
"We want to minimize the risk passing on the virus from one person to the others," he said.
COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which spreads between people, mainly when an infected person is in close contact with another person. Current evidence suggests that the main way the virus spreads is by respiratory droplets among people who are in close contact with each other.
The virus can spread from an infected person’s mouth or nose in small liquid particles when they cough, sneeze, speak, sing or breathe heavily. Other people can catch COVID-19 when the virus gets into their mouth, nose or eyes, which is more likely to happen when people are in direct or close contact (less than 1 metre apart) with an infected person.
The virus can also spread after infected people sneeze, cough on, or touch surfaces, or objects, such as tables, doorknobs and handrails. Other people may become infected by touching these contaminated surfaces, then touching their eyes, noses or mouths without having cleaned their hands first.
The National Commision For Civic Education has been sensitising the public on the need to strictly observe the COVID-19 safety protocol to keep the pandemic at bay.
The Chairperson of the Commission Ms Josephine Nkrumah, observed that despite stringent measures established to manage the virus including the Executive Instruments for the mandatory wearing of masks, limited numbers at social and public events, rigorous public education, many Ghanaians disregard the measures.
“Gatherings are without appropriate physical distancing," she said.
Politicians and their followers, she said, had total disregard for the safety protocols and this had further emboldened citizens to give up in the country’s collective fight against COVID-19. “Election season is here with us, we reiterate our constant reminders to citizens especially our political leaders that COVID-19 is still real and the disease is still with us.
“We question the relevance of the legislation on the adherence of the COVID-19 safety protocols if we have no commitment to comply and enforce these laws. What has affected the political will to remain focused on the strict adherence of the protocols?” she quizzed.
The number of active COVID-19 cases has been rising according to the Ghana Health Service. As of November 13, 2020 the active Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in Ghana was 1519, bringing the total number of cases recorded in Ghana since the disease was first recorded on March 12, 2020, to 50,018. A total of 48,179 people have recovered from the infection while the death toll is 322.
The NPP could not conduct primaries in about 150 constituencies in which it had sitting MPs in April because of the lockdown measures. The candidates on the other hand, could not campaign in the manner they wanted.
At the recent primaries for the election of parliamentary candidates for the NPP, a number of the supporters were seen floating social distancing protocols when the media captured delegates and supporters hugging and shaking hands.
The National Organiser of the New Patriotic Party, Mr Sammy Awuku who criticised the development, cautioned party members and supporters to be extra conscious in their interactions at political events.
He said measures had been put in place to prevent the spread of the virus yet, some people who were laden with emotion defied the measures.
“The party provided the handwashing stations and hand sanitizers to help protect our delegates but there is a human element. Traditionally, it is difficult to change but when progress demands change, you will change,” he said.
He stated that it may take sometimes for people to fully adapt to physical distancing because activities like hugging and shaking hands are imbibed lifestyle habits. Mr Awuku said the party will see to the strict enforcement of preventive measures, adding, “we are going to be strong on these matters. We will not shield anybody who has gone contrary to these laws.”
The NDC's Presidential Aspirant, Ex-President John Mahama had to announce his choice of running mate at an event dominated by social distancing, in a venue with capacity to host 2,000 people. Patrons stood or sat about two metres from each other, instead of the usual big rowdy event.
Ex-President John Mahama has taken to social media to educate the public on some preventive measures to take in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
The National Democratic Congress (NDC) has submitted a proposal of a national action plan on combating the novel virus to the Speaker of Parliament and formed a COVID-19 response team.
"The safety of our supporters is important but our major challenge with enforcing the COVID-19 safety protocol is with ensuring social distancing among the large crowd. We have over 50,000 people or more patronising an event and it is difficult to ask them to observe social distance," the National organiser of NDC, Mr Joshua Akamba says.
He explains that the party distributes nose masks and sanitizers to its supporters through the constituency executives and also provides hand washing facilities at venues where events are held.
"We insist that our supporters wear nose masks that is why we always give them free nose masks and we also ensure leadership by example as all leaders ensure their nose and mouths are covered".
One of the three women contesting in the presidential sit on behalf of the GPF, Madam Ekua Donkor says she has restricted her campaign to radio and television appearances because of the COVID-19.
"I am a committed citizen who values the lives of the people of this nation and l am ready to ensure their lives are preserved so l will not do anything to put their lives at risk," she said.
Politicians, amidst COVID-19, during their political activities were not spared. On July 2, Tema West MP Carlos Ahinkrah and his driver who had both tested positive for COVID-19 decided to get out of self-isolation and visit voter registration centres in his constituency to see for himself how the exercise was going on.
He was massively criticised for endangering the lives of others.
The politician defended himself by saying he was cautious and that he got out of self-isolation as he was asymptomatic. Ahinkrah was asked to resign as deputy minister for Trade and Industry by President Nana Akufo-Addoo for ‘failing to show leadership’ in the country’s fight against the virus.
On July 5, President Nana Akufo-Addo went into a 14-day self-isolation after a person within his close circle at the Presidency tested positive for COVID-19. Information Minister Oppong Nkrumah announced on July 7 that senior Minister, Yaw Osafo Marfo had also tested positive for COVID-19 and had gone into a 14-day self-isolation.
On July 21, the MP for Assin Central, Kennedy Agyapong revealed he tested positive for COVID-19 after he celebrated his 60th birthday on June 16, 2020 with some few friends. The Chief Justice went into 14 days isolation from the public and the Deputy Trade Minister went into self-isolation after he was unwell in compliance with the COVID-19 protocols.
A veteran journalist and a politician who currently writes for the BBC and the Daily Graphic newspaper, Madam Elizabeth Ohene, says "since nobody has any idea when we will get rid of this virus and there are no provisions in the constitution to postpone Presidential elections, we have to work around the possibility of holding the polls with COVID-19 around us. South Korea did it and we might have to do it as well, socially distanced and with our masks."
President Nana Akufo-Addo has also said: "the virus does not have a political colour, this is not the time for politicking, and right now, we must defeat our common enemy. He is having a good pandemic,"he added.
This report was supported by the Africa Women Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).