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Did Barrow hampers Covid-19 fight with open political rallies?

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By Tabora Bojang

Although the Gambia is among the few countries that avoided the mass Covid-19 infections and deaths that have devastated many countries, President Barrow has been heavily criticised for failing to provide the necessary leadership and management for the effective containment of the virus.  

Gambia registered its first cases on March 16 2020, since then the country went on to register 9789 cases and 328 deaths as of Monday September 6 2021.

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When the virus was first identified in Wuhan China, in December 2019 President Barrow was on his nationwide meet the people tour and held 44 public meetings between November 18th to December 8th 2019.

The disease has since spread worldwide leading to an ongoing pandemic.

Avoidance of public gathering, face mask wearing and regular hand washing were among measures strongly recommended by the WHO to curb the spread of the deadly disease.

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This prompted the government to institute a series of measures including travel bans, lockdowns, closure of schools, social distancing measures and halting political activities.   

On March 26 2020, Barrow declared a State of Public Emergency which was further extended by the National Assembly to 45 days ending on May 18th 2020.

The government followed up by tabling a motion for the extension before the National Assembly.

But the request was unanimously rejected. 

Lawmaker Madi Ceesay of Serrekunda West said the request was rejected by lawmakers because “the Barrow government has failed in its obligation to enforce the regulations they themselves instituted.

Adding that it also comes on the heels of insufficient aid interventions by the government. 

Following the rejection of the extension by the parliament, the president controversially went on to make several emergency declarations without the approval of the parliament which runs until September 17th 2020. 

Breaking Covid-19 rules

In the ensuing months beginning from October until recently the President has taken part in close to 100 public gatherings including his constitutionally mandated meet the people tour.

According to NAM Ceesay the president unending political gatherings does not manifest an exemplary leadership in the fight against Covid-19.

“In fact, well before these gatherings, the restrictions were also flouted and the government was not able to enforce it,” he said.

Between October 2020 to January 2021 Barrow presided over the following events characterised by mass gatherings.

The laying of the foundation stone of the Hakalang road and governor’s offices in NBR, tour of government infrastructure projects in the URR and upper Saloum. 

This was followed by delayed by-election in the Niamina West constituency and Kerr Jarga Ward. 

The Barrow camp was led in Niamina by tourism minister Hamat Bah and some close presidential allies. 

Few days after the seat gains, the President led a mass victory celebration at the Arch 22nd in Banjul which was attended by thousands of supporters from all over the country.

 During, these celebrations the president informed his supporters that he wanted to join the campaign but his minister in the campaign trail suggested it was not necessary.

On December 7th the president embarked on the longest nationwide tour ending on January 7th 2021. During these festive periods, the president conducted 60 public meetings across the country.

He followed this with the inauguration of his National Peoples Party where thousands of government officials, cabinet ministers, party delegates and supporters filled Independence Stadium amid huge fanfares.

This came on the heels of a new UK variant of Covid-19 being confirmed in the country.

Worried about these trends the leader of the opposition Gambia Democratic Congress Mamma Kandeh had issued a statement accusing the President of breaking the very regulations his government put in place to bar public gathering.

Mamma Kandeh claimed that the Barrow administration will have no legitimacy to caution or punish anybody for violating Covid-19 regulations that they do not adhere to as a government.

The Gambia slipped into the third wave of Covid-19 in July 2021 which prompted the Barrow government to introduce compulsory wearing of facemasks in public places. 

“This new Covid-19 trend does not halt any presidential gatherings as the December election draws nearer,” activist Ebrima Manneh said. 

Manneh said, since the beginning of the year [2021] dozens of constituents and traditional leaders frequented the

State House on weekly basis to hold meetings with the president “purely hinged” on politics.  

“The most recent ones were visits by the Serer community, the Manjago community, the Imams from West Coast and Kanifing Municipality, Alkalolu and Seyfolu and the community of YBK. 

There are all indications that he [the president] is endangering our lives. He has failed in his responsibility only to gain a second term at the expense of the struggling population” Manneh added. 

He said the president and his advisers should understand that the care of public health is the first duty of a statesman.   

“But on the contrary the political festivities seem unending and the past few weeks the National People’s Party held several political rallies led by President Barrow in Foni, Basse and Bakadaji,” the activist stated.  

A senior state nurse who wish to remain anonymous for job security, said the president is not the only politician who demonstrated inconsistency by organizing events where social distancing, wearing of facemasks have been an “apathy” but also oppositions. 

“This [politicians] are people who the masses look up to for guidance during national crises. So it does not matter whether one is a president or an opposition, the safety and the protection of the populace should be everyone’s duty,” she noted. 

Do these events affect our numbers of cases and national prevention?

The Director of Health promotion and education Modou Njai admitted that it has been a challenge for his ministry to implement the issue of social distancing and avoidance of large gatherings.

“It has been a big challenge for us but we did not fold our hands as a ministry. We also came up with a Plan B and that is to ensure we encourage them [politicians] to promote hand washing, wearing of face masks at all times.”

According to director Njai, the ministry cannot also associate the third wave to either the large crowds or the wearing of face masks or public gatherings.

“It will be a challenge for me to indicate that statistically we have jumped from level A to level B because of the political festivities. The last nationwide tour ended in January and we had a third wave around June-July and the cases increased in August. So you can see there is a gap between January and now and one cannot associate the third wave to the presidential tour because even after the tour there were a lot of events,” he said.

He denied suggestions that social distancing measures and other Covid-19 protocols were least observed during the president’s events [meet the people tour].

Challenges to control people during presidential events amid Covid-19

Mr Njai stated that since the beginning of Covid-19 one of his ministry’s key messages borders on precautionary measures and the use of face masks at all times especially in public gatherings.

“We know it is difficult to control people when the president is out or when other political parties are out because they want to show their love for the president or their party leaders. We also have to put in a strategy to inform our regional directors that they are on alert. And we also embarked on radio sensitization two weeks before the tour at each of the community radios in the regions.

Powers vested in the Health Minister  

The health minister is vested with powers under the Emergency Power Regulations to recommend any necessary regulations aimed at protecting the citizens from contracting Covid-19.

However, Mr. Njai contended that the restrictions were eased due to the trend and not convenience.

“We are also monitoring the trend of the virus and that is why the trend is low. We also eased the restrictions. Yes, the ministry has powers but the enforcement is not only for the ministry. The public also has a role in the enforcement. Don’t forget that every individual has the powers of a health officer. If a community feels a certain thing is happening, they can use their village powers to stop it through the village development committees.”

Can politicians do better?

The director said the ministry is pleased with the intervention of the political wagon by supporting communities and sending out messages.

“Perhaps they [politicians] could have also done better by engaging or for example when they are about to start their meetings and come up with messages and appeal to their followers to observe the guidelines. That message alone carries a lot so we want to see them now doing that at their platforms and Twitter pages,” he stated.

 This story was produced with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), through its Mobilizing Media in the Fight Against COVID-19 in partnership with Mai-Media and……

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