By Mbassi Sanneh

On 30th December 2019, the attention of the World Health Organisation (WHO) was called to the outbreak of a coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan City, China, which was spreading through human- human interaction. This novel coronavirus (COVID-19), a threat to world health, prompted WHO- China Joint Mission to warn China and the international community to put in place urgent and necessary measures to combat the outbreak.

On March 11, 2020, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Until that time, West Africa was not hit by COVID-19. However, the ‘honeymoon’ period has ended. On March 17, 2020, the Ministry of Health confirmed the country’s first case of COVID-19. Up to March 29, 2020, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases was 4, all imported, with one death. According to the Minister of Health, in a Press Briefing held on 1stApril 2020, 2 of the COVID-19 patients have recovered and would soon be discharged. Thus, currently The Gambia has 1 positive COVID-19 patient undergoing treatment.

While the infection rate in the Gambia is under control, we cannot go to sleep. There must be concerted efforts, coordinated approach and adequate, robust preparedness and response strategy in place. The challenge in the fight against COVID-19 is compounded by the rapid spread of myths and misleading information through social media and other unofficial sources. The Gambia’s cultural, traditional and religious practices allow for a closer interaction at the household level, ceremonies, “bantaba” chatting (gathering place), religious and community gatherings, “osusu” (women microfinance platform) or street camps, just to name a few. These gatherings provide a fertile ground for the spread of COVID-19 and an exponential increase in our infection rate.

The resort to seeking the help of herbalists, spiritualists and other traditional healers, in our quest to prevent ourselves from contracting COVID-19, can be a serious stumbling block to the fight, as witnessed during the Ebola crisis. The attitude of ‘mashallah’ (for the sake of help), lodging family members and visitors affected and not adhering to physical distancing, frequent hand washing or sanitizing procedures as advised by health experts can increase the widespread of the disease and hamper its containment in the Gambia.

Also, some people did not take the matter with seriousness; rather they pin their hopes on prayers and with the belief that black people have strong immune system that can fight COVID 19. Prayers are must but implementing expert guidelines as measures from WHO can drastically eliminate the ‘invisible assassin’ and enemy of progress. Cultural and traditional myths are stuck in people’s core belief systems and views in all communities and the world over. However, myths and beliefs provide a false sense of hope or paralyse actions of the response strategy.

To avert an environment where misinformation and myths about COVID-19 are peddled, the Ministry of Health, as countermeasure, should intensify its efforts on community-based programming and awareness creation; vigorously engage traditional and spiritual healers on etiquettes and awareness on WHO implementing guidelines; and use every available medium and platform to encourage the people to listen only to health experts and also religiously follow all the Ministry’s guidelines for prevention. Certainly ‘prevention is better than cure’.

We should be on very highlight because of our geographical proximity to Senegal which has, as of 2ndApril 2020 and from WHO updates 190, confirmed positive cases with no death. This is a threat to The Gambia and makes us highly vulnerable to the COVID-19. The cross-border traffic of persons and goods, coupled with the cultural and traditional practices we share and celebrate together, have the potential to increase the risk of the rapid spread of the virus. Furthermore, the porosity of the border with Senegal can exacerbate the situation if stringent measures are not taken to significantly restrict and curtail cross border movement of people or back door entrance would rapidly smuggle the virus to the country.

While I commend the Ministry of Health of the Gambia, in collaboration with its partners, for the great efforts they are doing in the fight against COVID-19, I urge it to learn from best practices that were employed during the Ebola crisis. Thus, activating the Ebola plan to the current situation is a good move that would strengthen engagement with religious leaders who could be a great entry point for public attention and education on the COVID-19.

We believe in and trust our religious leaders and their active engagement, coupled with their enormous influence, can greatly aid the fight against Covid-19. Local community leaders, village heads, district Chiefs and respected elders in the community will be of great importance to combating the spread of this virus. There should be all-inclusive approach, especially in how the most vulnerable and marginalised in homes and communities are targeted with information from press briefings.

The Government taking the lead in the awareness and response strategy, and though the implementation of one health approach, opens windows of opportunities for collaboration in building the resilience of the society to risk management rather than crisis management. Collaborative efforts, continuous community policing to fight together by acting with knowledge and adhering to the WHO guidelines, will enable us win this costly fight against Covid-19.

I give a standing ovation to all the frontline workers, Government and its collaborators and individuals for their unflinching support and cooperation. We will win over Covid-19. Yes, we can.

The author, Mbassi Sanneh, is a master’s student on Disaster Sciences at the Syiah Kuala University, Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

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