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How Covid-19 trapped beadle Ernest in Africa

Every year, Peterborough City Council senior beadle Ernest Mensah-Sekyere travels to his homeland of Ghana to help underprivileged children, workers and hospitals - but Covid-19 made the 2020 trip a very different experience.
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Ernest Mensah-Sekyere's annual trip to Ghana was impacted massively by the Covid-19 outbreak (Photo: John Baker)

Usually the trips last about a fortnight, as Ernest distributes sportswear and vital items in the central city of Kumasi before returning to the UK, via the Ghanaian capital Accra.

However in 2020 the trip was unlike any before, with the worldwide lockdown occurring just as he landed in March and pushing his trip into two months, before a desperate journey to get home - and even tragedy on the flight.

Ernest's journey started on March 14, when coronavirus and its implications were becoming common knowledge across the globe. The African country was ahead of the curve. 

He said: "Ghana had already started testing people's temperature at the airport.

"I spent the first week in Accra, and around then the President of Ghana made the announcement that there was going to be a partial lockdown in some of the municipal areas. I'd never experienced it before, so I was wondering what he meant. 

"I got to Kumasi, to stay in the house where I normally stay - and the lockdown started days later. I couldn't go anywhere - all of the journeys that I would normally make to schools and hospitals were not possible. 

"I was afraid. Anyone who had travelled to the country from March 3 onwards had to go and report to a health official about why they were there, and where they had come from.

"After that the health officials realised I was not sick, and where I was living - just with my son, who is at university there, which was closed. Because I had been there less than two weeks the official told me that I was not to go out at all, in case I had the disease and it had not expressed itself yet, and neither could I see anyone else in case they gave it to me.

"I couldn't see anyone that I normally see, so I decided not to let anyone know that I was even in the country in case they would visit. There were some football teams that I was to supply with shirts, so I cancelled that. I only used WhatsApp to communicate with people rather than calling them, so that they didn't see my Ghanaian telephone number."


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At first it was a time of solitude and relaxation, but as time went on - and his return flight in early April was cancelled - Ernest became concerned about  when and even if he could return. All flights out of the country ground to a halt . 

Even visits out to try to arrange transport were not wise, as the Ghanaian military made regular patrols through Kumasi's streets to examine the purpose of people's journeys.

However, Ghana was one of the first countries in the world to lift its lockdown, easing restrictions after just three weeks. President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo lifted the ban on some social gatherings including places of worship on April 20.

Provision was made to help some people leave in the form of repatriation flights, but these were at a premium. Several came and passed in late April and eventually the trip stretched into May. It nearly reached June before Ernest managed to bag a seat on a flight to the UK, after multiple emails to the embassy.

Ernest said: "I was very afraid I would be stuck here, but I had a cousin in London who was working very strongly for me. and I was fighting hard. I mentioned my manager's name at the council and the jobs I do here, to the High Commission. 

"In the end I had to pay an extra £500 for the flight, at the end of May - I had to act fast to secure it. 

"In the last week restrictions were lifted further in the second phase when the rate had come down, and I was able to do the things I normally do as long as everyone was wearing masks and distancing."


Ernest 4A girls' secondary school also received items

In that last week Ernest had a hectic schedule when he visited schools and hospitals, handing staff and pupils Peterborough Great Eastern Run shirts and backpacks, and protection/privacy screens. He also provided road repair workers with t-shirts, courtesy of Cristian Winder of NCS Trust.

In addition, counterfeit items seized by PCC's Trading Standards team which had gone through the investigation process and were no longer needed as evidence were passed to Ernest to distribute in the days before he made the flight.

However the journey itself was struck with disaster, when a lady collapsed with breathing problems and died during the flight.

Ernest never found out exactly what had caused the tragic occurrence, but believes it was unlikely to be Covid-19. 

He said: "I was not too close to her, but it was very traumatic. Whether it was to do with the mask she was wearing I don't know, but I do not think it was the disease as she would never have made it through customs.  

"Tragically, the flight still progressed to Portugal, with the woman's body on-board for three more hours. It was just so sad.

"What could happen that someone could die just two hours after leaving Ghana? They tried to save her for about an hour, but unfortunately they could not do it.

"It was very scary. The doctors and nurses were hurrying around, and one stewardess went to the back of the flight and burst out crying when the lady passed away."

Ernest is now back working at the town hall, and thanked his manager at Serco Jeff Austin and service director Mark Sandhu for the consistent support in keeping his head up and working behind the scenes to aid his journey back.

He still hasn't decided on whether he will return next year.

"I had a lot of things I couldn't do. So if I have the chance I will still go, but it's too early to plan. But until the virus has gone I still have to be careful."


Ernest 1Ernest is now back working at Peterborough City Council town hall