Postmortems by epidemiologists and virologists of note on the ability of African public health systems have yielded a grim truth; the continent is woefully prepared to deal with a Coronavirus  (Covid-19) epidemic. The decimation that Covid-19 would wreak would be biblical in scale. 

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has expressed horror at the damage that the virus could cause should it start spreading in Africa, saying that up to 10 million people could be wiped out. The global economy is bound to slow down in the long run if this situation persists. 

However, what is perhaps more relevant to the Gambian people should be this: How prepared is the Gambia government and particularly the Ministry of Health and the Center for Disease Control in the prevention of Corona Virus? 

I do not think Africa and the Gambia are prepared at all, and we are likely to be the worst-hit should the virus make an effective landing in our continent. Coronavirus is a particularly deadly killer that behaves like a fire in a dry season. The rest of the world is in a state of panic, frantically trying to blunt its spread. 

Countries that elevate public well-being over everything else have suspended flights to and from China, where the novel virus’s epicentre originated.

The Chinese presence in Africa is unmistakable, and it is quite pronounced in a country like the Gambia, where the Chinese are involved in significant sectors of the economy, including oil and gas, telecommunications, manufacturing, fisheries, infrastructure, SMEs and retail trade. 

Recently, all the Chinese who went home on holiday will start returning one after the other. It is incredible how senior civil servants and state officers take many things for granted, including the public services infrastructure they are responsible for citizens. 

When the story of the Coronavirus broke, the Ministry of Health issued a wordy and lengthy press release that was most unusually proactive, which we think is commendable. The Ministry of Health quickly followed suit to educate Gambians about the threat of the Coronavirus. 

Preventive guidelines were announced, and a travel advisory was issued. This is indeed commendable, even if the efforts were not translated into vernacular languages, that is – the languages of the majority of Gambians. The campaign has thus far been so elitist and restricted.

The Gambian authorities did not announce that the Government had established isolation centres in all regions of the country. The running theme in healthcare has been the handling of the global outbreak of the Coronavirus. 

In the Gambia, screening at the points of entry has been at best lacklustre, with Asian nationals entering the country, without being subjected to mandatory quarantine.

With such glaring assessments, it was criminally irresponsible for any government authorities to allow passengers aboard a plane from China to go home, hoping that they will self-quarantine. 

They were granted that necessary tests must be done on the passengers without exemption on any of passenger that exhibited symptoms of the virus  Covad-19, which has an incubation period of at least 14 days or even more. 

The reasonable thing to do would have been to quarantine anyone from China for at least three weeks. Asking them to self-quarantine is based on the passengers’ unverifiable goodwill to do so, which, one might reasonably argue, is a risky gamble. 

There is absolutely no way for the Government to know whether that request for them to self-quarantine will be heeded.

Contingency planning by Government for the outbreak is mostly secret. Most health facilities ill-equipped in terms of infrastructure and trained staff to handle such an outbreak should it happen outside the Greater Banjul city limits if the stories of too many Chinese contractors in the countryside. It is difficult to run away from the effects of an ill-equipped, malfunctioning public healthcare system in seasons of medical emergencies. 

During medical emergencies, the nearest medical center or hospital is chosen by default, and the distance is a significant determinant. Pray that if it happens to be a public facility, it has staff, equipment, and medicines to save a life.

Our senior civil servants and State officers must also know that due to their constant international travel and exposure to foreign contacts, they are in the first line of exposure against this global epidemic. Just recently, none other than the Deputy Health Minister of Iran became one of the first Coronavirus victims in his country. 

As a health sector bureaucrat, failure to put in place adequate isolation and treatment facilities is first a score against self, for there is no “private” isolation bubble against viruses or medical emergencies.

The only reported case of infection involving an African is that of a Cameroonian student living in Wuhan. Few African countries have taken steps to evacuate their students in China. Others have suspended its visa on arrival policy. Africa and South America seem insulated from the scourge so far. But for how much longer.  

The relevant authorities tell us that in preparing for the Corona Virus, which has not yet been reported in the Gambia, they are relying on the protocols and infrastructure already put in place in 2014 to combat the Ebola Virus. Nevertheless, has the Gambia done enough, or is the Gambia prepared? I do not think so.

There is no evidence that we have enough medical countermeasures to protect the medical and public health personnel who are supposed to operate our ports. The Gambia has not made any provision for medical countermeasures. The Gambia is sending medical personnel and Ministry officials to the ports to put them at risk.    

Until we have another case of like Li Weliang, the Chinese whistleblower who paid the supreme price for Corona Virus, the Gambian Government is not likely to wake up. That is unacceptable. The Gambia Centre for Disease Control and the Ministry of Health and have to do a lot more. 

At the national level, the Gambia Centre for Disease Control and the Ministry of Health will also need to address what has become around the subject of Corona Virus, an “infodemic crisis” – that is, the crisis of conspiracy theories and misinformation and hazardous false information. Is the Corona Virus a biological weapon? Really? 

Is it a strategy by big pharmaceutical companies to enlarge the market and increase profit? President Donald Trump and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have also been linked to the conspiracy. Does that make sense? We have also been told that eating garlic or drinking a bleach concoction can help prevent a Corona Virus infection.

It is no secret that most senior civil servants, especially those responsible for public policy formation and delivery of services, do not use essential public services. Many do not use public transport, public education, and public healthcare. There is an incentive for senior civil servants and State officers to ensure that the public healthcare system works. One can choose private schools for their kids. Senior civil servants and State officers can avoid public transport altogether, for the rest of their lives, but you cannot perpetually run away from the healthcare system unless you are exceedingly wealthy.

Their children are put up in private schools while children of ordinary Gambians get crammed in overpopulated public schools in the name of 100% primary school transition. Middle-class Gambians are also forced to pay more for education in private schools, due to the many problems bedeviling public education institutions.

Collectively, we can run away from the consumption of other forms of public services, but we cannot escape the detrimental effects of a malfunctioning public healthcare system. Even with expensive private insurance, once policy limits are breached, many of us revert to the public healthcare system for treatment, irrespective of social status.

A few years ago, a cabinet minister was involved in a road accident along Banjul -Sere-Kunda highway. He was quickly rushed to Westfield  Clinic, a privately owned facility, and later airlifted flown out of the Gambia to the UK for further treatment. At no point did that Cabinet Minister nor his family interact with the public healthcare system, yet that Minister is part of the team that formulates public healthcare policies at the highest level. He was lucky because his nearest point of call was Westfield Clinic and not a ran down public healthcare facility.

Is that true? The Gambian agencies are yet to respond to this. They should. They should take the additional step of addressing the spiritual question, which determines everything in the Gambia from politics to business.

Is Corona Virus a spiritual affliction or biology gone awry? If care is not taken, Gambian shamanists, traditionalists herbal, and spiritual healers will soon take advantage of the uncertainty to claim that they had predicted the occurrence of the virus and that, indeed, they have the solution.

The  Government should immediately arrest anyone who mouths such idiocy. Our only hope is that the Corona Virus will never make its way here, but as the Boys Scouts motto states, we should “Be Prepared.” The bad news is that there is no effective treatment for the virus. 

Furthermore, a worse virus may soon show up, leaving humanity effectively at the mercy of disease and the environment.

By Alagi Yorro Jallow

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