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COVID-19: Gambia Faces Brunt with Looming Cut in Remittances

Italy and Spain are the epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe so far with a joint death toll of over 32, 000 people with at least 287, 642 confirmed cases. The two countries are hosting thousands of Gambians who are working and sending remittances home to feed their families.

The Gambia, whose economy is weak, forcing thousands of citizens to migrate to Europe to look for greener pastures, have so far confirmed only four cases – one died, two recovered and one under treatment.

But this doesn’t mean the country has not been exposed by coronavirus as a major means of survival – remittances – has been threatened.

Deserted street in Italy after the coronavirus lockdown Photo credit: RFI

According to the World Bank’s latest migration and development brief, The Gambia [just under Comoros] is the second largest recipient of remittances in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2018 when it comes to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  

But with the lockdown strategy across Europe especially Italy and Spain in order to contain the pandemic, Gambian expatriates, like everybody else, have their movements restricted to the four corners of their rooms, not going for work. 

“The pandemic has affected me a lot, most especially on the side of the job, because I work in the tourism department,” Janko Kanteh, a Gambian living in Sicily, Southern part of Italy told The Chronicle.

“I have a family that is relying on me as I work here and send money back home. But at this moment, it will be difficult for that to take place because not going to work is seriously affecting me. Not only me but everybody in Italy. In this country, when you don’t have money, nobody helps you. So, it would be terrible.”

Janko was suspected of contracting the virus and was placed in isolation for two weeks after he bought some fruits from a seller who would soon be tested positive for coronavirus. But his test was negative. 

“The situation of isolation is something that I am not used to but the situation calls for it and I must respect it to save my life and the people around me,” he indicated. 

A report released by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in June 2017 indicated that Gambian migrants contributed 22 percent of GDP in 2016, making it the second country in Africa, after Liberia, that relies on remittances.

Lamin Touray who lives in Milan told The Chronicle that he has been under lockdown for a month or more and he couldn’t work to get money. Milan is one of the hardest hit cities of the virus in Italy.  

“I’ve not been sending money to The Gambia because I have not been working. You wouldn’t believe it but it is really serious to be kept at one place without working. But thank God my family understood the situation as a global crisis and they’re bearing with it even though it’s so complicated for them,” he said.

One of the busiest months in which heavy remittances are sent to The Gambia is the month of Ramadan, an Islamic fast month that starts in two weeks. People in diaspora would normally send money to their families to shop for foodstuffs, new clothes and offer more charities to the needy. 

“I’m thinking about Ramadan at the moment. We all know how expenditure normally increases during this month. What is certain is that it won’t be like other fast months because of the prevailing situation caused by the virus and consequently ceasing people to work and earn income,” Lamin Ngum, a resident in the Spanish city of Barcelona tells The Chronicle. 

As the pandemic shows no sign of ending, some migrants are beginning to consider themselves more. Ebrima Njie who is in lockdown for a month in Almeria, Spain has decided to keep the money at hand without sending anything home.

“I think it’s a better idea because I don’t really know what the future holds with this coronavirus. No one knows as no one can tell when the virus would disappear. Even though I have to send something, it will be very minimal and my family in Banjul would understand this.”

In 2016, Gambian migrants remitted USD$181 million. “It’s not about the money being sent home, it’s about the impact on people’s lives. The small amounts of $200 or $300 that each migrant sends home make up 60 percent of the family’s household income, and this makes an enormous difference in their lives and the communities in which they live,” Gilbert F Houngbo, President of IFAD stated.

A Gambian economist, Nyang Njie told The Chronicle that the two areas that will consequently suffer immediately are the construction sector and family financing. He describes the situation as a global economic downturn.

“Gambia relies heavily on inflows from the Gambian expatriates living outside. Now most of them have been rendered unemployed because of the issues relating to COVID-19…”

He added that the national economy will experience a slowdown which will affect tourism, construction and national savings rate will go down.

“When saving is affected, private capital for investment the banks will have less and less deposits. The implications are far reaching and it’s the economy that is going to suffer across the board. So, all sectors of the Gambian economy will suffer.”

He suggested that the government revisits to revise the budget downward because the projected amount they expected to collect in taxes will not be successful due to the outbreak which grinded the business to a halt.

Njie said things that are not too important must be deferred such as travelling and concentrating on priorities of the state.  

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