Many of you are aware my family and I visited Gambia for 5 weeks from December 10th to January 18th. Like many, traveling during this pandemic time is terrifying. We were very worried leaving the US and going to Gambia. Did not know what to expect on the ground and weeks leading to the trip I keep inquiring about the status of Covid-19 from friends and my media colleagues. I honestly did not get anything tangible. Some say it is still there, others say nobody cares and very few people wear masks. The Government had equally given lip-service imposing restrictions and lifting them in fear of impacting the tourists season.
We were prepared and took with us tons of masks, hand sanitizers and planned to be as careful as we could. Our first encounter of Covid-19 not taken seriously is the flight from Belgium to Gambia. From the US there was restriction and social distancing even in the flight to Belgium. Boarding the flight from Belgium we were seated like Sardines with absolutely no social distancing. The only precaution was wearing a mask during the flight and the flight attendance spraying air sanitizers in the flight while everybody was seated. It made me think the real difference between how the West treats their people and how we are treated in Africa! I concluded that it had to do with government requirements. The airlines were required to maintain social distancing in the West but African governments did not give a crap about how airlines would conduct themselves… perhaps in fear of harming their businesses or the peak travel season.
Upon arrival in Gambia, I observed absolutely zero social distancing… I saw a few people wearing masks at the airport including airport employees. It was now evident that if we were to catch any covid, it would be here. We kept our masks on and I kept asking people, where are your masks? When we arrived home, we set up hand sanitizers at the entrance and put in place masks for people to wear. No one wore a mask and everybody tells you for them they haven’t seem any covid. Although it was evident that some people were sick coughing and sneezing in every direction, many thought it was just the usual common cold and or the deadly dust from the streets and pollution. You could hear people say I have the cold and or ‘Demaa Sebiruu’. There was no mechanism to check people’s temperatures and it would have been a futile exercise anyway.
It didn’t take long before people started looking at me with strange eyes wondering why I was wearing my mask everywhere. I was still very scared and pretended that I was wearing the mask to minimize inhaling the dust… There were still businesses like super markets where masks were required. In meetings, very few people will wear masks. No one seems to care about their health or catching Covid-19. It was obvious government didn’t care either as you only see government officials wearing masks when the cameras are on. The President engaged in a one month tour of the country, and it was clear that Covid was no longer on top of its list.
For whatever reason, whether religious or just inability to sustain the social distancing and precautions for catching covid, the people were not bothered. The government slowed down it’s testing and hardly any active reporting of cases were going on. Sometimes in December it was reported that there were less than 6 new cases. The political jamborees continued and the social festivals ensured on a daily basis. We had our own ceremony at home and to be honest I was terrified of having so many people. I prayed for there to be no covid outbreak. Our hand sanitizers at the door and masks were ignored… So it becomes “when you go to Rome do as the Romans do” I honestly still kept my masks but was feeling really bad wearing it in certain places. The common theme is that Covid might be a conspiracy issue that the West and government officials were using as fear mongering… But it was also a fact people were still dying whether of natural causes or covid no one bothered to know. It wasn’t unusual to hear people attending funerals.
One thing was evident, there were no scores of citizens dying in mass numbers to the extend of filling hospital mortuaries. Deaths were no longer being tested for covid so perhaps people were dying from covid or other causes no one knows.
This mystery of covid being in Gambia with so many people mingling especially in the markets and ceremonies yet the streets are not littered with dead bodies, and the hospitals not overwhelmed with people severely sick and on ventilators is very hard to reconcile. Occasionally, we will hear family xyz have had covid and they have interacted with many people who were never sick or at least have not disclosed they got sick.
Eventually, I began to ponder what would be responsible for this disparity between the number of people hospitalized and dying say in the US and Gambia? There is no scientific study on why this was happening. I formulate my own theory that could be very wrong. My candid opinion is that the environment and living condition of the people could be largely responsible for the disparity.
First, the weather is extremely hot and dry which could naturally help people build immune systems to such viral infection. The other, is that the people’s immune system is far stronger than say the people in the West. I opined that because in the West people are so dependent on medications their natural immune systems are weak and more susceptible to such deadly infection. People in the West are obviously more obese and therefore may have more underline preexisting conditions. Whatever the case may be, Covid in Gambia, seems to not have the same devastating effects at least for now compare to other Western countries. It would make an interesting study for scientists to study the reason why Covid is not as devastating despite less social distancing, poor healthcare facilities and other precautions.
Perhaps it might also be true that African governments like the one in Gambia are more interested in the funding that are associated with the global pandemic than the actual welfare of the people. Certainly they couldn’t care much about the welfare of citizens when the healthcare system is so neglected. It wasn’t surprising that the Gambia government started isolating citizens who traveled into the country just to make a point and to continue to receive funding for Covid. Whatever government does the effect on the tourists season can be felt by the hotel industry. In the end, it is every man for themselves and God for us all.
Demba Baldeh Associate Editor