July 1, 2020
In late February, I flew to Ghana from the United States by way of Brussels and Paris. While the novel coronavirus moved quietly across continents, I navigated through airports, train stations, restaurants, and hotels in Europe. No temperature scan or questionnaire about flu-like symptoms impeded my movement—just a casual query about travel to China, as if inquiring about the weather. But the virus was spreading, quick and deadly, and every country I passed through would find itself scrambling over the next several weeks and months, its laissez-faire approach to COVID-19 proven woefully inadequate.
Every country, that is, except Ghana.
Upon our arrival in Accra, Ghana, flight attendants required passengers to recount their recent travel history and any symptoms of the virus. Exiting the plane, we encountered a full-body temperature scan. As I stepped up to the infrared machine, I panicked. What if I had a fever?
What I experienced, during my brief time at the airport in Ghana, was a country better prepared to face a pandemic than the country I would eventually return home to.
During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the Ghanaian government developed a comprehensive national preparedness and response plan to control the virus. Travelers were screened at points of entry with contact-free temperature scans and health declaration forms. Posters, TV and radio announcements, video clips, and brochures conveyed to the public how the virus spreads and its symptoms. Health care workers used contact tracing, mobile World Health Organization (WHO) labs, and isolation units to limit the virus’s contagion. The United Nations set up its emergency Ebola response headquarters in Accra to safely access neighboring countries. Ghana worked with the WHO and other global institutions, not against them. In his 2014 speech to the United Nations, the president of Ghana called for the international community to coordinate on stemming the virus, “because it is a disease that knows no boundaries.”
Ghana’s response six years ago to combat the Ebola virus far surpassed the response of many Western countries today to the novel coronavirus—particularly the United States’.
The Ebola outbreak prepared Ghana to proactively respond to the current public health emergency when COVID-19 first appeared in the country in March 2020. The government swiftly rolled out temperature checks at points of entry (like the one I encountered), contact tracing, aggressive testing, and public announcements. One hundred tuberculosis labs were repurposed to ensure each region of Ghana had at least one COVID-19 testing center. Adapting tools from the Ebola outbreak in 2014 for the novel coronavirus proved instrumental for Ghana to keep people safe and healthy.
Not only did the Ghanaian government employ existing public health mechanisms to slow the virus’s spread, but they were also the first to use drone technology to test for COVID-19. Transporting samples and tests via drones shortened the time to analyze results by hours and even days in some cases, all while remaining contact-less throughout the process; it also ensured that people in both rural and urban areas could access testing, regardless of their physical proximity to a hospital. By combining modern technologies with lessons and tools from 2014, Ghana proved that lack of economic power doesn't necessarily preclude a country from successfully combating a public health crisis—at least in the short term.
As of June 30th, 112 people have died in Ghana from COVID-19, out of a population of 30 million. The United States, a country with 330 million people and a GDP 300 times larger than Ghana’s, has suffered over 126,000 thousand deaths. Ghana was also the first African country to lift its COVID-19 lockdown on April 20th, maintaining social distancing guidelines while allowing local economies to slowly reemerge.
As countries continue fighting outbreaks of COVID-19, the aftermath of the pandemic remains undetermined. Yet, because their government prepared and acted quickly and effectively, smaller countries like Ghana may have stemmed the virus’s tide.
Luckily, I didn't have a fever when I arrived in Ghana. However, I could still have unwittingly carried the virus between Africa, Europe, and North America. As countries rethink their approaches to controlling contagious diseases from the outset, they should consider taking a cue from Ghana.