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Sunday, November 29, 2020

COVID-19 pandemic: The Gambia on the brink?

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By D.A Jawo

There is no doubt that most Gambians appreciate President Barrow’s decision to finally come out of his “hiding” place and address the nation on the scary surge in the COVID-19 pandemic that Gambians and indeed all those who reside in this country are being confronted with.

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Even though there was absolutely nothing new in President Barrow’s address, but it was still necessary because as head of state, people still expect him to frequently talk to the nation, preferably in the local languages when he would be in a much better position to deliver his message directly to them. While English is our official language, but as the intent and purpose of the address is to reach the majority of the people concerned and reassure them of his concern for their welfare, there is no point in speaking in English, which is spoken and understood by less than half the population. We are very lucky that for the first time we have a head of state who is quite fluent in four of the main languages spoken in this country and therefore, his addresses would no doubt have much more impact if he spoke directly to the people rather than rely on translations in which most of the meaning would have been lost.

On the dramatic spike in the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Gambia registering one of the highest single daily deaths (10) in the Ecowas sub-region, one would wonder how we got here. Is it possible that our health authorities were fooled by the low infection rate in the first two months of the pandemic arriving on our shores and therefore they became complacent? We can all recall how most people were referring to the high infection rate in neighbouring Senegal compared to ours, and even blaming them for the few cases we had, and making all kinds of remarks as if we were managing the pandemic much better than they were. We also saw how many people and institutions with the means were distributing various items such as foodstuff and detergents to various communities, with some using it to score political points. Even the government joined in that fray by distributing foodstuff throughout the country and making so much noise about it. Therefore, now that the big one is here and the people are suffering more, many people are asking what the government is going to do for them. Suddenly, all that festival of gift distribution seems to have stopped and the people are now left on their own to confront the pandemic.

We all heard about the initial 500 million Dalasis and the subsequent huge amounts allocated to fight the pandemic and stories of how those concerned were scrambling over it for their allowances and other unnecessary expenditure. Virtually everyone was claiming to be a front line worker entitled to a fat allowance, resulting in the Minister of Health making a passionate plea in the National Assembly for help to deal with the situation.

While we acknowledge the delivery of new ambulances and personal protection equipment (PPEs) which are highly needed in the fight against the pandemic, but it appears that we fired too many of our bullets even before the real predator was sighted and now that it is here, have we got enough bullets left to fight it? It appears that the health authorities started from quite an unsustainable pedestal when they were spending over D30, 000 per person for the period to quarantine all those suspected of being infected. There is no doubt that some people within the government may have been benefitting financially from such arrangements with the hotels and other places used as quarantine centres.

Now that we have been confronted with a much more serious situation, the health authorities are beginning to wake up to the reality; but is it not too late? For instance, we have been hearing of stories of sick people being abandoned on the streets and those charged with the responsibility of managing the pandemic not responding to calls for help.

A good case in point had been someone in Bakoteh who on Friday evening saw a complete stranger lying near his home and he made all attempts to get the health authorities to come to the young man’s help but all those he spoke to, including those manning the 1025 hotline, gave excuses for not coming to his aid. He even tried to hire a taxi to take him to the hospital, but everyone was scared to touch him, and it took almost 24 hours before someone from the health authorities finally came to say that the young man was a lunatic suffering from a mental problem. Despite that however, they still did not do anything to help remove him from there, and it was thanks to a Good Samaritan who came with her car and picked up the young man and took him to the hospital. This no doubt is a clear manifestation of the apparent lack of empathy and commitment on the part of some of those entrusted with managing the pandemic, otherwise, such cases should have been treated with the utmost urgency. It should never have taken a whole day for them to reach such a conclusion, causing so much panic and anxiety amongst those living in the neighbourhood.

With some comparative analysis of the dramatic rise in the infection rate in this country, one would realise how our fragile health care system has been overwhelmed. Exactly one month ago, on 15th July 2020, the Gambia had the lowest number of positive cases in the Ecowas sub-region. We had 64 positive cases, 3 deaths and 34 recoveries. Nigeria was the country with the highest number; 33,616 positive cases, 754 deaths and 13, 791 recoveries and our neighbours Senegal had 8,369 positive cases, 153 deaths and 5,605 recoveries.

However, as at today, 15th August, one month later, we have registered 1,689 positive cases, 54 deaths and only 347 recoveries, the lowest recovery rate in the sub-region. Nigeria still remains the country with the highest figure; 48,445 positive cases, 973 deaths and 35,998 recoveries. Our neighbours Senegal have registered 12,032 cases, 251 deaths and 7,637 recoveries. The Gambia has therefore jumped from being the country with the lowest figures in the sub-region to the eleventh position on the infection ladder. We have now been overtaken by Burkina Faso, Liberia, Niger and Togo, while we still unfortunately maintain having the lowest recovery figure.

Of course, the Ministry of Health alone cannot handle the situation, but all of us should play our parts quite effectively if we are to curb the pandemic. It is unfortunate however, due to apparent complacency and poor coordination, the situation is gradually getting out of hand, and with the rise in the death rate, it is getting quite scary. May be we need to reach out to our neighbours and even beyond for help to manage the situation. It is now quite obvious that our health care system has been overwhelmed to the extent that the hospitals and health centres are alleged to be turning away the sick, apparently because they have no spaces in our health facilities.

DA Jawo is a veteran journalist and former information minister

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