Part IV

The Gambia has thus far confidently braced itself for the Covid-19 pandemic in the face of inadequate healthcare infrastructure. Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed nearly exponential growth in the number of new cases (498) and death(9), reaching almost the entire country nears a grim milestone. 

One wonders whether the rising numbers of confirmed cases and the rapid escalation of coronavirus pandemic death toll appear to be a hiatus before the storm or that the Gambia commands merely a low of air land sea traffic of migration. 

Of note is the age-old fact that the coronavirus outbreak that starts outside impact the country since the pandemic. 

In essence, the Department of Health’s over-reliance on the security to enforce public health measures and the unnecessary criminalisation of a simple health matter only reinforced historical public cynicism about the state and its institutions. 

When Gambians badly needed, more than ever before, utmost public trust, support, and goodwill. The government measures did not consider their initial mistakes, especially the delay in stopping flights from China and other countries ravaged by the Coronavirus. 

The implication here is that the virus may have entered the Gambia as early as December 2019 or January 2020. If this is true, it can only mean the infections are in the thousands, hundreds of thousands or even more, and that the number the Government has been announcing, which are based on just a few samples tested, are not a true reflection of the extent of the spread of the virus. 

In other words, the Government should have rolled out mass testing contemporaneously with the curfew’s proclamation and other measures. If this line of thinking is correct and this citizen genuinely hopes that it is wrong, it can only mean that all the adopted measures have been in vain.

Nevertheless, the Gambia’s media platforms appear to do not seem to clearly understand the cloak-and-dagger war of perception being waged online nuance to this conundrum of the virus. 

Journalists do not know why the Gambia so far appears to have been profoundly impacted by rising cases of Covid-19. There is not much travel to that part of China (Wuhan) from the Gambia, or it could just be a coincidence. 

Curiously, the Gambia’s highest infections have come from Europe and America. The editorial slant is getting buttressed by accusations of continent-wide editorial sloppiness in the Covid-19 coverage by critical stakeholders in the local and diaspora media landscape. 

We fear that the Gambia’s news media is abdicating its responsibilities by not questioning the appropriateness of the global response to the crisis. It is failing to address practical, historical, cultural, and political questions around the interventions aimed at stopping the spread of Covid-19. 

The politics of pandemics 

What the extended list of outlets that constitute the media patently ignore is the decades-long debate regarding epidemiological definitions. The epistemological definitions of outbreaks, how they morph into epidemics and cross the threshold of pandemics, carry with them consequentially different meanings for the political bureaucracy, for scientific medical experts, and the public.

The media ecosystems – always adept at popularising poverty frames to largely elitists audiences – have not been able to hide their biases. Despite being disrupted by the new media models, these giant media outlets often act as spin machines, ready to be deployed in the service of their funders to perpetuate cultural hegemony and stereotypes. 

Their controvertible views include: how inequalities get exacerbated by this deadly virus; and why the Gambia is badly hit recently with the number of deaths escalating daily. 

However, daily editorial models and radio TalkShow perpetuate stigmas that hamper citizen cooperation to fight the virus. 

The Gambia’s healthcare infrastructure, which has been ill-equipped and chronically underfunded for decades, has consistently failed to eradicate even simple ailments decisively and has been subject to incessant concern as regards its capacity to handle epidemics or pandemics of this magnitude. 

Surprisingly, reading through the 2019 Global Health Security Index, it is interesting that the least prepared countries in Africa indexed the  Gambia in the list with Somalia, Equatorial Guinea, Burundi, Zimbabwe and other African countries hit by Covid-19 virus. 

Curiously, the Gambia preparedness seems more astute towards everyday ailments than pandemics.

We are at the center of a Covid-19 global pandemic where fears of infection, death, shutdowns, and job losses abound. 

Covid-19 is proving to be a far-reaching virus that is impacting economies, medical facilities, and cultural and religious events. 

It has infected everything, from supply chains to airlines, and everyone, from the young to the old. No one has survived its impact unscathed. Still, packed amidst its sweeping global consequences are nuanced racial, medical, and primarily editorial repercussions that differ regionally in scale, scope, intensity, and implications. 

Seasoned bureaucrat and Health Minister, Dr. Ahmadou Lamine Samateh, to manage the health ministry has paid dividends in an otherwise scandal-prone and largely dysfunctional regime. 

His astute management of public perception, with a media savviness not always associated with the regime stalwarts, has earned him accolades in certain quarters and the hard-wrought skepticism of others. 

The image war concerning Covid-19, which is primarily being fought through mainstream media, popular blogs, digital platforms, and grapevines, remains one of the sharpest points of contention in the fight against the global pandemic.  

The people think that the Gambia government approach to Covid-19 (just like other approaches to many other essential matters) has mostly been knee-jerk, incompetent, ‘copy-pasted’ from other countries flawed in many respects. 

This might sound harsh, especially given the novelty of the coronavirus and the absence of an established or settled approach to curbing its spread. This citizen’s thinking, however, is supported by a few illustrations.

First, the Government’s interventions did not take into account the general illegitimacy of the Gambian state and its institutions. Correctly, the Government assumed that its interventions would automatically enjoy genuine popular support merely because the country (and the world at large) was facing an existential threat. 

If the health and public policy experts had done research correctly, they would have noted that most citizens of the countries whose interventions were ‘copy-pasting’ genuinely trusted their governments and institutions and thus willingly obeyed restrictions.

In confronting the Coronavirus, which is, by all means, a faceless enemy, the Government brought the law and order mentality to the fore. 

Diseases are not contained by visiting threats and intimidation on members of the public. One cannot suppress or contain a virus by arresting people. 

The police’s traditional proclivity to unjustifiably mistreat citizens under the guise of State of Public Emergency ( SOPE) enforcement, which is mainly attributable to the colonial legacy of the police force, erodes the already diminished public trust in the Government.

However, the conditions in some of the quarantine and isolation centers are deplorable. This, coupled with the general mistreatment of persons detained at those centers, only reinforced the feeling that the state had unnecessarily criminalised and stigmatized Covid-19  carriers. 

Citizens could give countless other illustrations on the shortcomings of the government measures against Covid-19. We have been religiously obeying all the measures but are afraid that the sacrifices and like-minded citizens have been in vain. All because of the traditional failure to get simple things right.

What constitutes the Department of Health and private and public media in the Gambia patently ignores the decades-long debate regarding the coronavirus’s epidemiological definition. 

The epistemological definitions of outbreaks, how virus morphs into cross the threshold of pandemics, carries with them consequentially different meanings for the political bureaucracy, for scientific medical experts, and the public. 

In recent decades, the current lists of infectious outbreaks seem manifestly skewed towards the geographical Third World countries and Periphery.

We fear that Gambia’s news media is abdicating its responsibilities by not questioning the appropriateness of the global response to the crisis. It fails to address practical, historical, cultural, and political questions around the interventions aimed at stopping the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

By Alagi Yorro Jallow

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