Dr. Ahmadou Lamine Samateh: The Gambia’s Improbable Coronavirus Hero. The Trials and Tribulations of COVID-19

by Alagi Yorro Jallow
Fatoumatta: These are trying times we live in; life had changed since a novel coronavirus called COVID-19 has taken the world by storm, with the good, bad, and ugly consequences. The death of a loved one to Coronavirus is tragic, rivaled by losing a job, a company, or savings because of how the virus has affected the economy. Social distancing has disrupted our lives. Ordinarily, human beings are tactile. We like to relate to one another. We like to touch each other. All of a sudden, we are being told that we cannot touch, hug, kiss, or do all the things we ordinarily do since the coronavirus outbreak. All of our sporting events and conferences have been canceled. Some individuals and regions have been quarantined. None of this is good, but it is not as bad as the ugly stuff.
Fatoumatta: Another lousy thing is mass hysteria, which causes stress. We have recently witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly of the coronavirus pandemic. Everyone, worldwide, is scared and helpless. Christian kids and their parents are not talking about Easter – Conversations in Muslim circles are not about congregation prayers or Ramadan or Umrah or Hajj. We are to manage how to stay safe and healthy by staying at home. Flowing river that forgets its source will die. Farmers are scared of their farms; wayfarers are wary of ways. Bankers work without banking; cashiers are afraid of touching cash. Food markets stink of rotten potatoes; spoilt tomatoes and unbought onions litter abandoned stalls. Worship places are closed; courts are shut; public gatherings banned; presidents change office; ministers avoid ministries; everyone works from home — for the security of their lives.
From one end of the Gambia to another, everyone sits still at home. For the rich and the poor, there are no wedding ceremonies, no child christening parties, no funerals. The first time in decades, civil and public servants are at home without perdiem allowances, foreign investors they woo every year abroad are no longer available; they are also staying safe in their homes. Even our President is at home because Coronavirus has suspended all summits, conferences, meetings, and personal appointments. In the final analysis, we now realize that nothing matters but life.
Moreover, in the protection of that life, everyone, including home haters, is told that the safest place to stay and play is home. If a man knows where he would spend his eternity, he will make the place a paradise. As T.S. Eliot says, a home is “where one starts from.” Williams Bennett defines it as “shelter from storms – all sorts of storms.” Everyone, including the homeless, now remembers there is a home to roost and escape to, from the ravages of Coronavirus, which has redefined everybody’s concept of living. The disruptive storm of the plague has upended global and personal stability:
Fatoumata: Every cloud has a silver lining. Even the darkness of the novel coronavirus pandemic, though not utterly banished, has let through slivers of good light. Take, for instance, the fact that many developed countries are reporting clearer skies. The carbon footprint left by industrialization has reduced to levels unattainable by years of stringent regulation. Politicians, civilian and military, whimsically ran down the health of the Gambia. Their sword wantonly ate into its sheath and would not agree that what it was destroying was its home. Healthcare facilities here were left to rot because the elite thought they were for the poor and the dispossessed.
Furthermore, the hospitals indeed slid into a coma; even the clinic in the Serekunda lacked paracetamol. The elite went to London to treat ear infections, change their eyeglasses, and brush their teeth. They never thought a day would come when a common virus would block their escape flights to Heathrow and John F. Kennedy and Boston Logan airports and India. Today, the sick Gambian elite is stranded. The jets are not flying, and the planes are not landing- everywhere is dead; everyone is on ground zero. Those outside are back home, eating the stale “Tapalapa bread” prepared by the COVID-19 war.
Fatoumatta: According to studies in the United States of America, social distancing has allowed bold and aggressive behaviors to thrive in Africa and the Gambia mainly. The Good has been with the fragile health systems in The Gambia, and shortage of medical personnel, the honorable Minister of Health and Social Welfare Dr.Ahmadou Lamine Samateh is compelled to ramp up with his team of health workers, first responders, GAMCOVID-19 containment measures; the security, and the private media, to name a few, who show up for work and care for the well-being of the Gambian people.
In many ways, this is a season of good, bad, and ugly of the coronavirus crisis. Many career-obsessed husbands and wives, staying at home for the first time because it helps to break the chain of coronavirus transmissions, are getting acquainted with their children and family.
At a national level, heroes have emerged. The Minister of Health, Dr. Ahmadou Lamine Samateh, the Gambia’s coronavirus ‘Czar,’ has become the face of clear, trusted communication, a rarity in the Gambia public service. Some observers have described Dr.Samateh as “The Gambia’s improbable coronavirus hero.” It further says that though previously, Dr. Samateh was seen as a consultant General, a surgeon, a medical lecturer as well as a technocrat who was ordinary and emotionally distant, in his coronavirus briefings, these traits become assets defines in essential talents and exemplary leadership through tough times.
Internationally, a first was achieved when white citizens of Spain gave black doctors from Cuba a standing ovation. This was in appreciation of the fact that the Cubans, experienced in dealing with epidemics, were at hand to help Spanish doctors overwhelmed by the pandemic. What made it more poignant is that just a few months earlier, black footballers in Spain had suffered racial epithets. The Spaniards had then casually chalked it down to “cultural differences.”
Naturally, COVID-19 has exposed many wrong sides. For one, it has lent credence to trenchant criticism of Africa’s healthcare systems. It is bad enough that medical personnel in the Gambia do not have adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPES) without adding the fact that many are not trained to handle pandemics. Health insurers also have clauses that exclude pandemics meaning that the rich and poor now have recourse only to public facilities. One is reminded of an old beer slogan apropos to COVID-19, “makes us equal, has no equal!”
Fatoumatta: Another lousy thing is mass hysteria, which causes stress. Besides, many Africans, typical of Gambians, earn their living daily. They are farmers or fishermen or traders who must go to work in the morning to survive. In Sub-Saharan African countries, as in the Gambia do not have social safety nets, the types that exist in developed countries. In the Gambia, more than half of the youth population lives below the poverty line. Almost 12.32 percent of the Gambia’s youths are jobless or underemployed. They have no access to food stamps or unemployment benefits. For these persons, life is a daily struggle. Even the employed are either underpaid and over-worked, and their salaries and pensions are not are inadequate to support the extended family system.
Fatoumatta: The coronavirus pandemic has also exposed the fact that many in the country subsist on wages that are below the poverty line. They have no savings to fall back on, and the state cannot afford to support them in the event of a protracted lockdown. Has the Gambia government contacted the Gambia Chamber of Commerce for advice on food security cover and importation of essential commodities, including rice, pointing to gaps in the food supply chain? The status of food insecurity and to mitigate the effects of food insecurity will affect over half of the silent majority of the Gambian population.
Fatoumatta: Considering that the Gambia is an agricultural economy, it is an indictment of the country’s ability to feed itself in this time of crisis. Coronavirus’s ugly side continues. Beyond the overt loss of human life, hidden aspects have been brought to the fore by the scourge.
Fatoumatta: The lockdown in the Gambia is meant to enforce social distancing, and to check the spread of COVID-19, a measure that has been adopted globally to prevent persons from transmitting the disease. However, here in the Gambia, the lockdown has done more in terms of exposing and highlighting the character of our people, their circumstances, the attitude of state agents, and the socio-political implications of the initiative. This has prompted calls for an African solution to COVID-19, and the description of social or physical distancing as an imported Western response. Africans by nature are communal; we are brought up to imbibe the philosophy of “ubuntu”: that is, “I am because we are,” and this is expressed in various forms: we eat together, indeed in many cultures, out of the same plate or bowl. We are happier when we are in a gathering either in the villages or in the cities. To ask an average African to lock himself up at home could be an inversion of his social reality. Even if it is possible for the mentally colonized middle and upper-middle classes in Africa to observe social distancing at home and outside, it is near-impossible for the poor. The rich live in comfortable neighborhoods, in flats, mansions or duplexes with small household units of not more than 4 or 5 persons, the poor live in slums, and rural areas where they are huddled together in one room, or a room-and-parlor, in a six or eight-room building occupied by probably eight families, with each family having a minimum of six children, and all the tenants have at best access to just one communal bathroom, one toilet, and a well in the yard as a source of water supply. In rural areas, most families live inside a small hut. It is probably better to disperse such persons than to ask them to stay at home in the face of a communicable and deadly disease like COVID-19.
Fatoumatta: In the Gambia, the police arrested and arraigned to court the CEO of Kairaba Shopping Centre together with dozen of retailers convicted for overpricing essential commodities during the country’s coronavirus lockdown. Sixteen drivers were convicted and fined each for overloading their vehicles with passengers in contravention of the government public health emergency restrictions.
Police arrested an Imam for allegedly flouting the new COVID-19 social distancing rules by leading jummah prayers in his home village of Jarra Kanikunda. This anachronistic approach to enforcement of law and order highlights the fact that the transition from force to service is yet to transcend the superficiality of bright new uniforms. Fatoumatta: Internationally, Business Insider magazine quoted two highly respected French doctors discussing how a new COVID-19 vaccine under development should be tested in Africa, “where there are no masks, no treatment, no intensive care.” The implicit message was that Africans are expendable guinea-pigs, a racist slur. Africa is now beginning to confront what The Economist magazine calls “a grim calculus,” the stark choices between life, death, and the economy. As the pandemic curve rises, doctors must decide whom to put on the ventilator and whom to leave out to die. This is even as governments make the delicate balance in spending on public health without adverse effects on the economy.
Fatoumatta: China has shown the Bad and the World Health Organization (WHO), who misled the world in believing this Coronavirus was not as deadly as it is. Coronavirus has created a seismic shift akin to the security checks precipitated by the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. The Coronavirus pandemic has affected social cohesion and the mental health of many. In the analysis of the good, the bad, and the ugly, it is evident that life will never be the same.
The Ugly, President Adama Barrow broadcast could not have been more auspicious: a better late than never effort nonetheless. He provided an outline of all the measures that had been introduced so far by the Gambia government to stem the tide of COVID-19. He also announced additional measures to protect livelihoods, businesses, and the Gambian economy. There were many grey areas in the President’s speech because Gambians, particularly the most deserving and vulnerable, deserves access to the cash transfers as other countries do for those affected by the coronavirus outbreak?
What is indisputable is that the government is yet to prepare itself better. This is in terms of the acquisition of adequate test kits and equipping of hospitals with ventilators and personnel so that should a secondary wave of infections arise, the country is caught flat-footed. President Adama Barrow must be adding to his political pork of stimulus package the Wuhan coronavirus relief payment to the most deserving and vulnerable people affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

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