Some Ghanaian health workers, including doctors, may have been affected with the COVID-19 virus, mostly from handling patients who had not been diagnosed yet; nonetheless, health workers in the country remain resolute in facing up to the challenge posed by the virus, National vice president of the Ghana Registered Midwives Association, Hajia Damata Sulemana, tells MARTIN-LUTHER C. KING in Accra. Hajia Sulemana, who is also the CEO of Hajia Damata Clinic and Maternity in Accra, cautions those who still see the entire COVID-19 issue as a lie not to wait till they get infected and become part of the statistics before they believe that the virus is real.
May we meet you, Ma?
I am Honourable Hajia Damata Sulemana, a midwife, mother, philanthropist, a politician and the national vice president of the Ghana Registered Midwives Association (GRMA), which is the oldest registered professional association in Ghana. It has been there since 1935, making it 85 years old now.
How has COVID-19 affected Ghana?
When you talk about COVID-19, it really came with some fear and scare that has destroyed a lot of businesses. That is the first thing I can say about it. When it first came, we did not know the dynamics of the virus; we didn’t know how it was. So, everybody, including me, was in a dilemma, in a state of fear. I opened this facility 1988, and it has never been locked since then. It’s open 24/7. But I locked up for one week when COVID-19 was imported into Ghana. I was afraid because of the way we were hearing about the virus. Who wants to die? Even if you are a cripple, and you hear that death is coming your way, you will run away. But it was later that I had to psyche myself up, that, me, being a health worker, I should be there to take care of the sick when they come to me. I encouraged myself with the thought that, if God be for us, then everything will be okay. With that conviction, I came and reopened the place, called back my staff, and we resumed work.
So, that is COVID-19 for you. It is a global pandemic, and I think our leaders in Ghana and Africa are managing it very well. I think the way that African leaders are managing the virus, and the way they are trying to put across a lot of modalities, I think is very good. And that has helped us, especially for West African countries. We have done really well. It shows that we are on top of our game. We know what we are about , and what we want. We have shown commitment to our people. We love our people. Our Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo put it rather well when he said that he knows how to fix a broken economy, but does not know how to bring back life. And, really, he is doing it. Now look at the COVID-19 fund, which he has come out with, to support businesses in Ghana post-COVID-19. Also, for the last three months, we have been enjoying free water and government-subsidised electricity. That alone shows that the man is a man of God, a god-sent son. We don’t have to play with him because of the way he has managed COVID-19 in Ghana.
As a health worker yourself who is in the frontline, how would you rate measures by the Ghanaian government to safe-guard health workers in Ghana involved in battling the virus?
It’s a serious issue. But, what do you do? You’ve sworn that this is the profession that you want to go into. So, you cannot run away from it. It’s just like being a soldier, and a war comes. You do not put down your gun, remove your uniform and run away. Rather, you have to face the situation; that’s why you have been trained. You have to face it with the training that has been given to you. And this COVID has made us to understand that, if an infected person gets near to you, you may get it, if the person coughs, you may get it. So, one has to keep a distance, or social distancing. That means you don’t have to be in crowds, or go to crowded places. However, we are humans. Sometimes, a patient may come who hasn’t been diagnosed yet and, mistakenly, you may be affected. Thank God that, up till date, we haven’t got any death from health workers, though some of them have been affected. Last time, when we went for the national executive council meeting (of the Ghana Registered Midwives Association), we found out that two of our midwives in the Upper East Region had been affected. So, we called them and talked with them. One was in isolation with a six-month baby, but is okay now. We must also remember that those who are being affected are human beings like us. As such, some health workers may be affected, even doctors have been affected; but they are now okay, and are willing to come and tell their stories, so that people can understand. Truth is that, for some in the general public, the entire COVID-19 issue is a lie because, maybe for them, they have not seen somebody who had been affected by the virus. But if a COVID-19 patient would willingly come out to talk about their experience, just like when HIV/AIDS came and some people were willing to come out, it will certainly help us. Truly, COVID-19 is real; and, we should all take good care of ourselves.
Most of the COVID-19 fatalities have been attributed to co-morbidity. How can the phenomenon be reduced?
Looking at (Ghanaian) culture and, also, the way our houses are built, whereby, if I’m not mistaken, in one compound or so, you may get no less than 100 people living there, you begin to imagine what would happen if one person there gets infected with COVID-19. So, that is a problem. Luckily enough, Ghana does aggressive contact tracing, which is why we have been able to identify a lot of people who have been infected with the virus, some of whom were even walking around without any visible symptoms. It was only after such people had been tested that they got to know they had the virus.
People are mostly not adhering to social distancing and other COVID-19 protocols. Are you alarmed by this?
They are not doing it; they are not observing it. You, see, we are individuals, with our individual beliefs and cultures. And that is why, in areas that are densely-populated, a lot of people are affected with the condition. But we are still talking to them. My district here, Ayawaso North, was the district in Accra that had the highest number of COVID-19 cases. At that time, it was a tug-of-war. Indeed, at a time we had 34 cases; and when the municipal chief executive (comparable to a local government chairman) came out to talk to the people about it, they nearly killed him. They said he was disgracing the community. Why should he come out to talk about it? Which house were the patients living in? That he was lying. Later on, what the contact tracers did was that when they came for an affected case, they will do a video of the visit and post to various social media platforms informing that they were in such and such area to pick an infected person; but, they won’t show the faces. That helped put a stop to people’s recalcitrance. So, it’s all a matter of different mindsets.
Ghana, like most countries around the world, is gradually easing various COVID-19-related restrictions. Most international borders remain closed, however. When do you think should be the best time to reopen borders, especially for Ghana and West Africa?
You see, the virus was imported into Ghana and, I guess, into most West African countries. The infected persons came in and started spreading the virus. It may also be recalled the high number of positive cases that were recorded after some passengers who flew in from UK and US were mandatorily quarantined. That alone tells us that the borders should remain closed for some time so that, if every place becomes calm, then the borders could be opened. Or, West African leaders can sit down and find ways and means of how to monitor the people. For instance, if you are entering a country, you will need to be assessed. Or, there could be hospitals at the borders where new arrivals into the country would be tested. If the new arrivals test negative after two days, then they would be allowed to enter the country. Also, it would be good if all ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) countries could have a common strategy for the reopening of borders across the West African region.
Tell us about your hospital. How did it all start?
In fact, I don’t know how God gave me the idea. Here in Ghana, the law does not allow you to work in the public sector and also have your own private facility at the same time. But my case was exceptional. I started working for Ghana Health Service in 1976. I trained at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital (Kumasi, in the Ashanti Region of Ghana) as a general nurse and worked there after training. Thereafter, I came to Accra to join my husband in 1982 and worked variously at the Ashaiman Health Centre of the Tema General Hospital. From there, I came on transfer here. That transfer happened because I came to realise that my experience had been restricted to a health centre. And for someone who was trained at a teaching hospital to find oneself in a small place, I felt I was being underutilised and that my mind won’t be broadened. Though I was not working much, and was earning my proper salary, however, the experience was not fulfilling enough; and, I felt I was wasting my knowledge. So I told my husband, ‘Look, I can’t work here; I need to open up. I need to go on transfer.’ And, my husband agreed. That was how I left Ashaiman and came to Accra, and applied for transfer. Luckily, I was given admission at the Ridge Hospital, where I was posted to the female ward. Actually, I was the one who requested to work at the female ward. Why? Because at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, I didn’t have the opportunity to work at the female ward.
Prior to that time, I had never nursed a female patient in my life as a nurse. I was always working at the surgical ward, B1 and B2, and the children’s ward. It happened like that because there was this professor, Professor Ahiati, may his soul rest in peace, who, due to the way I was hardworking, did not want me to be moved from his ward. Anytime they did changes, he will stand on the matron and say, Please, bring my ‘girl-friend’ back. He used to do prostatectomy. And, for prostatectomy, if you don’t have a nurse who is hardworking, fast and very serious, you will lose all your clients. So, Professor Ahiati didn’t want me to leave his work. That was how come I remained in the male ward. When I came (to the Ridge Hospital), I told the matron, Please, matron, I have never nursed a female before. I want you to put me in the female ward, and she agreed. Because sometimes in this work you also have to ask for what you want and you also get the experience. So, as I sit here, I am an all-round nurse and an all-round midwife too. I know everything.
How do you assess the condition of nurses and midwives in Ghana?
When you compare the condition of nurses and midwives in Ghana and West Africa to their colleagues outside Africa, there is a vast difference. When one is a midwife outside, the salary that she receives and the respect that they give to her are incomparable to those here. As a midwife, you are a consultant, you are a prescriber, you are everything. But in Ghana here, they don’t see us that way. Actually, initially, nurses and midwives were put together; some nurses were even earning more than midwives, which shouldn’t have been. So, it’s still a big problem that we are still battling with. It’s a gradual process. We will succeed, but not now.
Why not now?
It’s like something that had spoilt for long. If you want to force it, it may not work. It’s like when your teeth starts shaking and you want to remove it. If you force it, it will bleed. But if you leave it, it will, gradually, one day, come out on its own without any drop of blood. That is how it is. We are working on it. We also must understand that, in every profession, there is some politics in it. And, it’s really affecting us. Because they know that if the midwives should stand on their own, they can bargain for good salaries and other things. That is the problem we are facing in Ghana today.
Your final words?
I am very grateful for your visit. Thank you very much.