An update from Lady Kira Dalton, African Oyster Trust director
Here in The Gambia, like everywhere else in the world, Covid-19 has decimated the already fragile economy in what was always a very poor country (the ninth or tenth poorest in the world).
Many people here live in multi-generational and very crowded compounds, where social distancing is impossible. They rely on trading their goods or produce in the busy markets for their daily income, and they travel in overcrowded mini-buses or taxis to get to their workplaces. With no refrigerators, indeed often with no electricity either, women venture out daily to buy food and firewood to cook it.
Although the airport, borders and schools have been shut since March, none of the restrictions have so far been strictly enforced. For example, the land border with Senegal, which has had over 10,000 cases, is very porous. Many people have been apprehended after being reported by worried neighbours for crossing illegally. Others have got through, then subsequently been diagnosed when they fell ill or passed away en-route to hospital – after infecting numerous close contacts in the interim. The other day I saw online that a large group of Islamic Scholars had returned from Saudi Arabia, which has a very high rate of infection, without any testing or quarantine. Just in time for the Tobaski Eid festival, which saw many people travelling around the country to visit family and converging in the mosques.
As of last week, there have been new regulations requiring masks to be worn in all public places and prohibiting any large public gatherings. Both are being flouted! Yesterday, I saw many people with no masks in the very crowded Tanji fish market and was kept awake until the wee hours by loud music coming from a nearby naming ceremony. Rumour has it that more than 100 people were there!
As I write, the case numbers are still escalating rapidly, and the main hospital is already overwhelmed. Many of the private clinics have closed due to staff shortages and lots of the health workers are in quarantine. Last week they were all on strike demanding hazard payments, distribution of the PPE which had arrived over two months ago from China and more support from Government. That seems to have led to the loss of control over what had been a rigorous track and trace system.
The Minister for Health made a very brave speech in the National Assembly recently regarding the widespread corruption throughout the Government, including his own department, which saw the inclusion of numerous “ghost workers” names on a list of those who should receive generous payments from various overseas emergency funds. Large amounts have been spent on new vehicles rather than on more essential items such as refurbishment of woefully inadequate isolation facilities.
Yesterday we saw on the news that three more Government ministers have tested positive, as had the Vice President last week. The President has gone into self-isolation and the Minister for Health is in quarantine, so we are all left wondering: who is running the show now?
Yesterday there was a touching clip from the Mayoress of Banjul, begging them to impose a lockdown before any more people die in their homes. I heard today that she herself has now been admitted with Covid-19. Even at the main teaching and referral hospital, the oxygen supply has run out.
To begin with there was a total of three ventilators (who knows whether they were working or if anybody knew how to use them) and recently the Chinese have sent us nine more, which have not yet been distributed to hospitals. For a population of over two million there is a total of just 100 ICU beds.
Already it had been quite a difficult year, with anti-government demonstrations in December and January having an adverse effect on tourism - a mainstay of the economy. And now, who knows if or when the visitors who bring with them 25% of GDP and many of the jobs, will return?
The News Diary is a regular account of all that is happening at The African Oyster Trust. Please pop back for regular updates, follow us on Twitter or sign up for our RSS feed to have the latest news sent straight to your computer!
The news diary is written by a number of people close to the work of the African Oyster Trust, including founder James Holden, his co-directors, trustees and volunteers.