If COVID-19 has dealt the world a near-mortal blow, if it has locked down cities and sent powerful countries reeling, if it threatens powerful economies and launches crippling panic attacks in the hearts of millions, it has also inspired the human genius that now leaves it stuck in the present and headed for defeat and extinction. It seems true that obstacles and challenges initiate their elimination as soon as they arise if, that is, like COVID-19 they inspire the right reactions. As an obstacle and a challenge, COVID-19 has overdone itself by the sheer magnitude of its capacity to unveil much that was hidden in human nature and human potential in the pre-corona era.
Here, in The Gambia, COVID-19 has surely caused much concern, even panic among the people. The fear of possible infection and death is palpable among the people. If during the pre-corona era death was feared, that fear was moderated by death’s potential distance and the unlikelihood of its happening to us just out of the blue. That comforting distance between us and death no longer exists in these days of coronavirus. And so everyone is conscious that they could die any day. And that prospect of imminent death inevitably casts a pall of anxiety over the people, some more severely affected than others. And so we all take the necessary precautions; we happily sneeze into a napkin, cough into our elbows, avoid shaking hands, and wash our hands at every possible opportunity, even if often reluctantly because well, it could get annoying having to wash your hands three or four times within an hour, especially if you are out shopping. But we do it with a grin, if not with a smile because we recognize it is necessary and certainly easier than the alternative – getting COVID-19 – and because we are determined to defeat the coronavirus, to stop it in its tracks and demonstrate that we have what it takes to sensibly manage this virus to the best of our ability and thereby save our lives and the lives of as many members of our community as possible.
It is this collective determination to manage and defeat the coronavirus manifested in so many beautiful ways across the length and breadth of The Gambia that makes us speak of a COVID-19 spirit – a spirit that is one step ahead of the coronavirus and that manifests as collective intelligent action designed to limit the damage COVID-19 can cause. Everywhere you look, from the big cities and towns in the urban areas to the big towns and villages in the rural areas, hand washing stations are set up. In front of supermarkets and many other public places, water and soap are provided and people are politely asked to wash their hands or they just know to wash their hands before they go in. In our daily open market places, water and soap are similarly provided and people wash their hands and go about their business. Some of these services might have been recommended and even provided by the state, but most are provided by ordinary Gambian citizens and individual businesses, just doing what is the most sensible thing to do, and doing it pleasantly too. There have been food and essential items donation drives initiated by ordinary citizens, and a number of our young and upcoming artists have come up with caravans, songs and poems to sensitize the people about COVID-19. The picture that emerges is one of a sensible collective of Gambians acting in largely uncoordinated, but harmonious ways to make sure that our dear country and our people are safe from the corona virus and are able to live their lives more or less as they did in the pre-corona days.
The Gambian reaction to COVID-19 is certainly not one of crippling fear, excessive panic and stupefying confusion. In fact, COVID-19 has brought to the fore a particular spirit of the Gambian people which has all along been present, but which has never manifested as fully or as beautifully as it is now. This is the spirit of a conscious determination and energetic capacity to rise up and face daunting collective challenges in very calm, sensible and practical ways. This spirit is explicitly demonstrated against the coronavirus because it poses an existential threat – the threat of imminent individual or mass deaths. But there are many other challenges in our society against which it can be usefully deployed. However, because these other challenges are not as immediately life-threatening as COVID-19, we did not confront them as we now do COVID-19.
The good news is now we know we can confront any challenges in our national environment with the kind of collective intelligence, determination and action with which we are currently confronting the coronavirus. Let us then be determined to nurture and deploy this conscious and intelligent collective action against all the other challenges that we faced in the pre-corona days, and that we will face in the post-corona days. Many of these challenges – ranging from needlessly bickering moral universes to the politics of hostility, youth unemployment, pot-hole ridden streets that turn to dignity-sapping lakes of dirty water during the rainy season, frustrating traffic conditions, public indiscipline and the widespread poverty and destitution that turns so many of our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and children into beggars or criminals – will be overcome or severely diminished in the face of our focused and determined collective intelligence and action. These challenges will still be with us in post-corona Gambia; but they are challenges we can face and eliminate with our current can do, will do together spirit, which we must actively and consistently nurture going forward. We can safely say that for our beautiful little Gambia, what we here call our COVID-19 spirit is just what the doctor ordered!