A new type of politics: Constituency support and campaigning in coronavirus times

Before becoming a member of parliament in Ghana, Amujae Leader Dr. Zanetor Agyeman-Rawlings spent a decade working as a medical doctor, obtained a certificate in conflict and crisis management, and completed a Masters in conflict, peace and security. Therefore, it’s not surprising that her background has shaped her response to the COVID-19 crisis, as she works to understand the shape of the pandemic in her country, provide guidance on how to reduce the rate of infection and mitigate against its effects.

“At around the same time as we were attending the inaugural Amujae Leadership Forum in Liberia in early March, we were also beginning to build preparedness for the disease’s eventual arrival in Ghana. I saw some really impressive protocols at the Forum about handwashing and temperature checks, so I was able to bring those back when I returned home. We weren’t affected by previous outbreaks of Ebola and so didn’t have the same level of preparedness as the countries that were. That meant we were behind the curve from the get-go compared to other countries, and we have had to learn quickly to try to stop the spread of this illness.”

Handwashing demonstration

To help her community guard against COVID-19’s spread, Zanetor has been actively engaged in raising awareness about how the virus is transmitted and the importance of regular hand washing and disinfecting surfaces. She has visited local businesses, eateries, markets, and transport hubs, and continues to share information on social media to reach a wider audience. Having previously led campaigns about the importance of good hygiene and proper handwashing techniques with market women as part of safety and sanitation initiatives in the markets, she was pleasantly surprised about what she found:

“Women, in particular, remembered not only why it was important to have good hand hygiene, but also how to do it correctly. They are such an influential group, that it actually feels like some of the work is already done as we try to expand our reach. And we are now seeing more and more people delivering these educational messages in their own constituencies—it seems as though we started something good.”

A visit to a school to ensure personal protective equipment was available and protocols were being observed

The informal sector in Ghana plays a huge role in supporting the country’s economy. There is also a large informal public transport system—comprising buses, vans, and motorbikes—which creates additional challenges in both preventing COVID-19’s spread and tracking and tracing contacts of those who are infected. Understanding this economic reality as well as the epidemiology of COVID-19, Zanetor has advocated for greater inclusion of the informal sector in the pandemic response:

“We can’t just pretend they’re not there. Instead we need to offer support and education to local transport businesses, both educating them on hygiene best-practices and the need for physical distancing, as well as providing financial support as they reduce their operations to prevent transmission and protect others. We are also encouraging people who use motorbike transport to record the registration plate of the motorcycles they travel on, enabling a form of tracing should someone become infected.”

Additionally, Zanetor has been working to support women who are left particularly vulnerable due to the pandemic. She identified a group of women who travel from the north of the country each year to work as market porters. Trapped by the lockdown, they found themselves unable to travel home and with no means of feeding themselves; they cannot earn any money while the markets are closed.

“We divided our constituency into zones to help us identify these women and other vulnerable people, and are now able to ensure that we get aid to them during this period. Some of this was done by providing financial support to women at the heart of these communities, allowing them to cook and distribute food as well as alleviating their own financial distress—we’re building communities and allowing them to support each other.”

2020 is an election year in Ghana, and as an MP, Zanetor would usually spend much of her time campaigning to secure re-election. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has changed much about the way her election campaign is being conducted. With gatherings limited to a maximum of 25 people and places of worship closed, she is instead meeting more people individually:

“We’d usually take advantage of large gatherings of people to communicate, but that’s just not possible this year. I actually enjoy interacting with people one-on-one and being able to engage with people differently—it’s a different type of politics when we’re going from person-to-person, and house-to-house. However, there are challenges around wearing masks. We’re trying to strike a balance between any risk to health and allowing people to see us. I’m hopeful that by the general election in December, we would have seen a flattening of the curve and an easing up on the mandatory wearing of face masks.”

Throughout her work during the COVID-19 pandemic, Zanetor has been struck by the support she has received from her fellow Amujae Leaders: “It’s brilliant that our sisterhood is reaching out across borders to support each other. As women, it is the concern we bring to the issues that will ensure that our people are adequately protected. We’re building our own community, and the effort that Madam Sirleaf has made to keep in touch with Amujae Leaders is invaluable—knowing that you have a support network to reach out to is fantastic. Over the next year, I am sure many initiatives will be shared on this platform and as we learn from each other, implement ideas, and share back, we will make important strides in the fight against COVID-19; we will continue to grow this group and bring in more young women to offer them the same opportunities.”

Learn more about Zanetor here.

The Amujae Initiative is the flagship program of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development. Learn more about the Center here.

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