I’ve been briefed on background (Chatham House Rules) by a senior diplomat in The Gambia who shall remain nameless. I wanted to get a sense of the current state of affairs in the country regarding the COVID pandemic along with the political implications. Here are my notes of some of the highlights:
The official describes the situation in the country as ‘strange’, and says the spike in Coronavirus infections is largely to do with negligence on the part of the public. I was told that proper protocols outlined by the World Health Organization were not being followed, ever since The Gambia recorded its first case in March. I was also informed that the speed with which testing and the reporting of infections are being performed is a cause for concern. At the current rate, there’s a three day lag, which means that today’s (Sunday’s) reports, for example, only reflect the state of the country on Thursday – a lot of vital information is therefore lost.
The diplomat was gloomy in describing the prospects for the short to medium term. I was told that there is a real chance of a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in The Gambia. The bedding capacity at the moment is frightening. Already, 60 to 80% of hospital beds are in use at this early stage of the pandemic. The diplomat confirmed that they are deeply worried, having spoken to the Chief Coordinator for testing, because they only have a month’s worth of testing kits, and even those are fast running out, with no new supplies in sight.
I was told that at the start of the pandemic in The Gambia, 20% of COVID-19 cases were symptomatic. Currently, 60% of cases are symptomatic, which means that patients require medical treatment in hospital. Also, 30% of all front line workers I’m told are infected with the virus. This situation is made worse by a shortage of medical staff at the best of times.
The crucial problem is not to do with a lack of ventilators or breathing equipment. The problem is the lack of trained doctors and medical personnel to man these machines.
The diplomat said that 30% of the government is COVID-19 positive, and the political response from the administration has been disastrous. Communications — especially strategic communications — has always been a problem for this government from the very beginning. We saw issues to do with lies when Mr Alasan Senghore resigned from the COVID management team. He complained about the lack of political support from government, but instead of fixing that problem, officials went around briefing against him, claiming that Mr Senghore left because he wanted to be paid a huge salary! The management aspect of this government has been poor.
I was told that the VP who was heading the COVID-19 task force is herself ill from the disease and in quarantine, and so the task force is for all intent and purpose leaderless at the moment.
The official told me the organizational wing of the government is non-existent. Take for example the 1.5 billion dollar donor pledges from the rest of the world at the Brussels Round table. Not a single follow-up has been done by this government, and so the entire donor pledges are now one of the many failures of Adama Barrow.
Everyone in The Gambia wants to take advantage of the system these days. High level corruption is a very serious issue — it is eating up everything in the country.
I asked the diplomat if they were worried about the current situation creating an opportunity for the military to step in. I was told that they were not worried about the CDS, or indeed the top brass. The diplomat believes that the higher ups in the military are genuine about security sector reforms, and actually that many of them won’t even benefit from those reforms, given their age and other reasons. But the diplomat was worried about the more junior ranks of the army — I was reminded that Yahya Jammeh was after all not a CDS or a major, or colonel and yet he managed to take power — and that the threat could come from more junior officers with enough disgruntled elements around them.
The official told me that the ECOMIG mandate in The Gambia has actually ended. They have no mandate as we speak. I was told that elements in ECOMIG are not happy because in addition to their normal salaries, they were being paid an extra allowance, but that stopped in March.
Finally, I was informed that the population is getting to the verge of panic and leadership is badly needed. National Assembly members should be more visible, because they ultimately represent the people who are affected by the pandemic. It doesn’t make sense, I was told, for NAMs to disappear from the scene when they are in fact the voice of the people! The diplomat was very worried about what will happen to the tourism industry and by extension the economy, if by September the virus is not contained in The Gambia. They worry that this virus could derail the democratic process in the country. The priority of the government should be to save lives and feed the people first before anything else.
By Esau Williams
— Courtesy of the Community of the Gambianist scholar listserv