The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) came as an unwelcomed guest, disrupting the very fabric of our socio-economic systems. Life has drastically changed to adapt to the new realities of a new world order. Countries like the Gambia whose economy is heavily dependent on peasant agriculture, tourism, remittances and foreign aid are heavily shocked by the so-called Chinese virus.
Inadvertently, the Gambia paid a heavy price as government had to cut from the budgeted expenses for the fiscal year 2020 to fund the various interventions in the mitigation, control and sustenance of the already fledging economy. This led to the Gambia government to seek relief from western bodies and donor agencies to supply the struggling population with food ratio package to help the poor people by giving them rice, sugar and oil which was distributed across the length and breadth of the country. This happened amidst furor and controversy over the 24 hours tendering process and the so called politicisation of the food package by the executive.
The food stuff has probably run out in the households of most Gambians, with continuous lockdowns being implemented to mitigate the transmission of the coronavirus which has adverse effects on the livelihood of the ordinary Gambian. The main premise of this write up is to comment on the plight of the ordinary Gambian, who in my opinion is most affected, and as always does not call the shots.
Lockdown measures have had a detrimental effect on the livelihood of the average Gambian who has to work daily to put food on the table and foot the bill of expensive utility and rent bills. Poverty in the Gambia stands at 48 percent according to the World Food Programme report of 2019. The pandemic has exposed the loopholes within our socio-economic systems. By observation, it is evident that poverty is on the rise, society is more unequal than ever and the unemployment issue is now more dire than any other time. With the economy shrinking by 3.3 from a projected growth of 6.3 percent (UNDP 2020) and government recording losses of billions in tax revenue coupled with the battering of the tourism sector which culminated in many losing their jobs and the investors recording losses in the millions. The ordinary Gambian is at the mercy of the vices of a fledging economy which is characterized by high cost of living and heavily burdened on tax by a government that is heavily dependent on tax revenue.
Also, I will be quick to add that the culminating social problems such as crime and drug abuse have had a surge in recent times, the level of armed robbery, banditry and drug abuse is a ripple effect of the economic situation and is of great concern .The safety and welfare of the ordinary Gambian is at risk even with governments’ efforts to fight crime. The anti-crime unit is doing a great job in that regard; however the unit is also marred with allegations of criminal acts and human rights abuses. People are losing confidence in institutions which are supposed to protect life and property. On the flip side, the fight against these social ills and delinquencies should take a more humane approach, the fight in ending corruption, unemployment and underemployment will have a direct effect in reducing crime.
There isn’t sufficient data to show the extent of damage to our battered economy, and I am of the view that it is incumbent on all stake holders concern to make sufficient research findings, data which can be used to inform sound policy formulation. But in the short term and long term there is need for diversification of our economy to prevent the internal and external shocks of disruptive occurrences such as this unexpected pandemic. We need to learn from previous shocks of the recent past such as the Ebola crisis of 2014, the Political impasse of 2016.
We need to diversify the tax base and increase our sovereign wealth by investing more in Agriculture and Aqua culture; there is vast potential in rice cultivation in the Central River Regions and most of the hinterland. Agriculture has the potential for strong economic stability job creation and the much-needed food security.
What of the extractive industries such as the black sand other minerals that we are naturally endowed with? Why can’t the state take more control of these resources for the benefit of the sovereign Gambians and plough them back to the people in the form of welfare services.
The tourism sector has proven to be a very vulnerable sector; we need to consider other markets in the sub region for all year-round tourism and make it attractive for local tourism. There is huge potential if we are able to tap in the markets in the in the sub region to supplement the European markets, promote eco-tourism, inland and community based by tourism locals and foreign visitors.
As a country we also need to look into the future, Gambia can be a hub for Information, communication and exponential technologies such as Artificial Intelligence. We have a decent pool of young entrepreneurs in e commerce, multimedia and entertainment. We have witnessed the rapid changes in the use of digital media in education and business. The direction is one that the government needs to spear head to register growth for our future development aspirations.
We need to at this point in time as stakeholders in development come together to proffer solutions to our complex socio economic and political issues. The Gambia government is burdened and constrained by the magnitude of the corona pandemic and now more than ever, needs all hands-on deck to address this situation collectively as stakeholders. Civil society, Non-Governmental Oganisations, the private sector and international partners all have a role to play to come to the aid of government in these trying times. Government as well needs to show leadership and resilience and a will to serve its sovereign people.