The silent debate on prevention of Corona virus at the workplace

Posted on  August 18, 2020 

Categories:   Precautions

Keeping a face mask on in public has become an important venture now, especially if you are living in Ghana. That’s because it can save you from a prison sentence of four to ten years or a fine ranging from GHS12,000 to GHS 60,000, or both.

Ghana’s government has made it compulsory for all residents to wear a face mask when outside their homes in public places, wash hands frequently, observe a social distance and use hand sanitizers.

The reason? compliance with the World Health Organisations’s COVID-19 protocols by the populace has generally been difficult. However, an area missing in the government’s enforcement agenda appears to be the workplace. Perhaps this was because of the assumption that the system of management in workplaces generally ensures workers adhere to policies formulated by their employers. The first sign that this was a misconception was when the Pioneer Food Factory in Tema shut down, in May after a COVID-19 outbreak reportedly linked to over 500 cases.

The Ministries of Employment and Labor Relations and Trade immediately issued guidelines under the factory inspection unit of the Trade’s ministry to regulate activities at the workplace and ensure the COVID -19 preventive measures are followed. This was done with anticipation that it would stem the rise of workplace related cases.

Little did the authorities know that the task ahead was bigger.

The story is told of how the Finance Ministry weeks later shut down and allowed only key staff to work at factories and organisations such as COCOBOD, the country’s foremost cocoa price regulator, the Bulk Oil Storage and Transportation Company Limited, BOST head office and even the Judiciary  which postponed all cases in court after Ghana’s Chief Justice; Kwasi Anin-Yeboah went into 14-day isolation over Covid-19 fears.

The Director-General of the Ghana health service, Dr. Patrick Kuma Aboagye at a press conference urged that ‘‘managers should continue to engage their staff on the safety precautions that have to be done and ensure that the things they need for hand washing, social distancing, sanitizers are all available at the workplace, the workplace organization should be done in such a way that there is very little contact as much as possible, eating together and all those things should not be encouraged’’.

Perhaps, what lingered more, were the words of the country’s Information Minister Kojo Oppong Nkrumah who on the same platform, announced the government’s decision to initiate harsh measures on those found flouting the law through an enhanced workplace inspection regime.

“Government is considering an inspection regime for workplaces and if it becomes necessary that some more daring steps be taken on workplaces that are openly flouting these regulations, we will do well to announce’’.

My find was interesting.

Social practice, customs and psychology were all to blame for the rising workplace incidences.

When I first interviewed a friend on why she thinks more cases are being recorded at the workplace, she said workmates no longer see themselves as potential carriers of the disease due to the prolonged time they spend with each other making many to continue to exhibit habits like eating together and chatting heartily without a face mask.

‘It is difficult to tell a colleague who is not wearing a facemask to do so, he or she may think you are stigmatizing or even suggesting they have got Covid-19. I ran into issues when I started insisting that people at my office wear masks before talking to me. The name-calling was heavy. And I wondered how face masks have become such a divisive issue” she said.

Another fascinating find was how superstition has been able to break the scientific barrier.  Another interviewee said his biggest problem was hearing people say things like:

“Why, if you will die, you will die, even the health minister who is trumpeting the protocols got infected. Look it is actually people who are very careful about the disease who get it.”

“Others will say things like, as for me, corona cannot kill me.” he added. Name-calling like Papa hygiene, and Mr. Hygiene anytime I clean and disinfect my desk were on the lips of many. This can be discouraging and lead to workers not wanting to follow any of the protocols and thus increasing risk of spread.

Musah Lansah, a journalist, wore a face mask any time he sat in public transport and reminded all other occupants to also put on their face masks. He says he had a friend who got infected by the disease and since he had interacted with his friend a lot he started feeling scared when he began feeling symptoms, he believed were similar to that of Covid-19.  Luckily, he tested negative.

Rather than spur him towards keeping vigilant so that he will continue to escape the virus, Musah now barely puts on his face mask at work. When I asked why this was his response, “I see they are my colleagues and I trust them” he responded shyly.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone wears a face mask in public, in addition to practicing social distancing and frequent hand washing. Interestingly, the President who was on a 14-day isolation after coming into contact with a person who tested positive was also photographed without a face mask and hanging out with his family during the period.

Director-General of the Ghana health service, Dr. Patrick Kuma Aboagye knows the dangers associated with these habits.

“The issue of workplace outbreak is that, these same people either they pick it up from the workplaces and take to their community where they live that enhance the spread or they bring it from the community and spread it at the workplace because certain etiquette are not being followed”

As countries struggle with this unprecedented threat, balancing the need to have people protected while maintaining essential health services are key, however, that effort could be derailed by some Ghanaians who continue to argue about things like the wearing of face masks, washing of hands, cleaning and disinfecting working tables and surfaces at the workplace, which are some of the only hopes Ghana has of easing the contagion.

 By Daniel Nii Lartey