Coronavirus Reflections from West Africa

by Sala Sweet

Sweet, a long-time Seattle Shambhala member,  was in Ghana, West Africa, when COVID-19 first hit our communities in Washington. She was there to help fight malaria, a disease that already takes 400,000 Ghanian lives each year.

Sweet faces unique challenges as she works with doctors, health clinics, and volunteers as part of a malaria prevention initiative funded by Rotary clubs in the United States and Ghana. She has generously shared an account of her thoughts and experiences from the past two months as she travelled in Ghana and the US.


Corona Cloud —  Last Days in Ghana

Spring arrived on March 19.  In most years a time of renewal and new beginnings.  This year our attention has been diverted to the human condition.  But Mother Nature carries on, bursting with new blossoms and gorgeous sunrises and sunsets.  Because we humans have been caged, animals and sea creatures now are reclaiming their fields and waters. And skies.  If it is possible for you or me to get outside we are enjoying the gift of a calm and beautiful spring.

Ghana has begun its quarantine and border closing processes.  Flights to and from Europe have been cancelled.  Therefore I cannot fly through Amsterdam on KLM and Delta.  I have rescheduled a flight on April 11 from Ghana direct to JFK and then Seattle.  But that’s 3 weeks away.  It may or may not happen. Large meetings have been banned.  Rotary District Conference has been canceled indefinitely.  More importantly to most Ghanaians, the football (soccer) games are not happening.  But reruns of previous games keep all alive.

I’m mostly staying home, though I go out to get food.  And try to set up internet access.  It’s still very sweaty, so whenever I go somewhere with AC I linger.  Today is Sunday and there are no church meetings, a very unusual occurrence. Tomorrow the large open market, Makola, will be closed and all areas within the market (outdoors) will be sprayed.  I’m not sure with what.  Hand washing and hand sanitizers are required to enter any space, store, mall or restaurant. A few restaurants are beginning or ramping up home delivery of food.

Exit Ghana

Nhyira, daughter of my friend Dr. Commeh. One of the many people that I sadly could not meet with this time in Ghana. Just met with her Mum.

I began to be facing a very tough decision.  Although Ghana started by having only two coronavirus cases, imported from Europe, around March 15,  the concern about its spread was growing.  A contact that I know who works at the airport was telling me that the airport in Accra was going to be closed soon.  I contacted the American Embassy in Accra and they began sending me messages about potential flights out, contracted by the Embassy.  My good friend Dr. Commeh, who works for Ghana Health Service, told me that I was more at danger in Seattle and that traveling on a plane was the greatest danger.  But most of what I hoped to do in Ghana wasn’t possible.  All Rotary meetings were cancelled, so I couldn’t meet with people in person.  I couldn’t travel to Kumasi where I hoped to meet with people working on Peace Jam.  Or meet with Dr. Yeboah, who is establishing a maternity clinic using integrated medicine, or Dr. Addae who is reopening the School of Integrative Medicine with the Kumasi Institute of Tropical Agriculture to train  health care professionals in integrative medicine, using traditional herbal knowledge along with western technology.

And I didn’t want to be a burden to my friends if I should get ill.

Monday the Embassy contacted me and asked if I was interested in being on standby for a flight out on Tuesday.  I said yes.  That flight was cancelled.  Tuesday I got a notice to be at the airport on Wednesday morning.  I arrived at 7 am to find 200 people sitting on the sidewalk waiting to get into the airport.  I went to a table at the head of the line and because I was on the standby list was allowed into the airport.  During the next 5 hours I waited to see if I would get on the plane.  There were about 20 of us on standby.  One was a couple who were returning from Liberia with two young girls they had adopted. Many were Ghanaians with double citizenship who had been visiting home to be with family or to attend to business.

Couple travelling from Liberia with their newly adopted daughters. They made it onto the plane.

After 4 hours of watching those with reservations enter the plane – most of them young men who were serving on a missionary program, they gathered the standbys.  My name was read off.  So was that of the couple traveling from Liberia.  But two of the people I got to know and like while waiting, were not among those named.  The Embassy said they were trying to schedule another plane for two days later.  Each flight had to be approved by the President of Ghana.

I was the last, or one of the last to board Ethiopia Air Flight 339.  I was escorted to first class on a plane where the seats in first class fold out into a bed.  A good feature for an 11-hour flight to Dulles Airport in Washington, DC.   Everything was great about the flight.  Except the fact that I love Ethiopian food and they served boring airplane food.  Arrived in DC at 7 pm EST.  Because I did not know when or if I would get a flight to the US I couldn’t book a reservation ahead of time.  Delta, the airline I was working with, had cancelled all flights out of Dulles.  So I booked United and the flight left 12 hours later – the next morning.  Spent the night on a bench in the airport, with unmovable chair arms.  No opportunity to lay down or stretch out.   Next flight was to Denver and there were only 7 people on the plane.  No wonder flights are being cancelled.

I arrived in Denver at about 8:30 am MST and was scheduled to leave at 11:30. I didn’t leave until noon or after as there were issues with the plane that needed to be addressed and cancellation of the flight was a possibility.  Finally touched down in Seattle at 2 pm PST, about 40 hours later.

During my flight I sometimes wondered if I was carrying the virus.  Yes, I was sneezing.  But that happens to me every time I fly.  And this was a triple flight.  Yes, I sometimes had aches, but my body was twisted into many uncomfortable positions.  Yes, I had tightness in my chest, but this experience was a bit stressful and that’s how my body sometimes reacts. It’s interesting how being endlessly bombarded with symptom descriptions makes you imagine them in response.

I don’t know the cost of all this.  I had to sign a declaration in Ghana that I would pay whatever the cost of the flight would be, up to $2,400.  If not paid, my passport will be invalidated. I’m waiting to see.

But I am home and experiencing very restricted movement as are all of us.

Corona in Ghana

The President of Ghana has issued a declaration that institutes a partial lockdown of Accra and Kumasi.  The lockdown begins on March 30 and unless extended, ends on April 13.  Upon landing in the US I had a chance to hear President Nana Akufo-Addo’s speech about the coronavirus.  He instituted a lock down in the greater Accra area, Tema, Kasoa and Kumasi.  Vehicle traffic is restricted.  Most businesses are required to close.

What is different from our experience in the US is the level of preparedness.  All people, staff and take-out customers, are required to wash their hands before entering a building.  There are kegs of water and hand soap at each entrance and a staff person making sure that hand-washing takes place before someone enters.  The government has testing  and PPE equipment and has distributed it.  They are recruiting 1,000 Community Health Workers and 1,000 volunteers.  They have allocated 1 billion cedi to assist individual businesses and small businesses.  (Approximately $173,300,000).  Many other initiatives were launched to assist people with the physical and economic challenges they are facing.  Because Ghanaian citizens experienced the Ebola outbreak in nearby countries 4 years ago, they are well versed in how to behave and keep themselves safe.

At the end of his speech, President Akufo-Addo urged Ghanaians to help each other stating – “The enemy is the virus, not each other.”  And he noted that he would donate the next three months of his personal salary to organizations assisting the needy in Ghana.


Malaria Initiative in Tuba

Volunteer training on March 27. RMP t-shirts distributed

As mentioned in a previous communication, as a Board Member of Rotarian Malaria Partners (RMP), I am currently working on a project in Ghana.   Although we are currently surrounded by news of the coronavirus, malaria kills approximately 400,000 people per year, many of them children. The project in Tuba involves indoor residual spraying (IRS) by spraying the walls of residences with a chemical that instantly kills mosquitoes upon contact.

RMP awarded the Weija West Rotary Club a grant to provide IRS in Tuba, a small community on the outskirts of Ghana’s capital, Accra.  On my first weekend in Ghana I attended a meeting of the Weija Club.  Attending members are enthused about the project and pledged their time to making it happen.  Attending that meeting were a group of Rotaractors.  Rotaractors are young people, likely to become Rotarians as they mature, and are supported by Rotary Clubs in their activities.

Community volunteers, mostly young people form local high schools,  were trained on Friday, March 27,  to assist  by taking a census so that the effectiveness of the project can be measured and educating residents on how the spraying will take place. They expressed a lot of enthusiasm about the project and Rotary in general.

Meeting with contractors and Weija Rotary. They will train community workers and do initial spraying.

Just before leaving I met with Weija Rotary President, Kojo Amoh, Patrick Sorkpor, Community Project  Manager, and two representatives of the firm that will train community team members in spraying and conduct the spraying. One of the contractors is a member of Adenta Rotary Club and will encourage his club to be a supporter of the project.  Weija Rotary has created a flyer to be handed out to community members describing what will take place on the day of spraying. And produced t-shirts for volunteers to wear that advertise the involvement of RMP and the Weija and Achimota Rotary clubs.  A signboard has been established in Tuba, advertising the project.

The measures enacted by the President of Ghana prevent the actual spraying from taking place until the lockdown is lifted.  But training and organization has been accomplished and the project will be implemented at the earliest possible time.  The Weija Rotary Club and its team members that it has solicited from other Rotary clubs and the community have moved forward with determination, despite obstacles and challenges.  I honor their courage and dedication.


May we all stay well and help each other

in this time of realizing we are connected to each other.

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