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COVID-19: How Gambian Frontliners Put Their Own Lives on the Line

While politics and other interests are endlessly being associated with Gambia’s COVID-19 fight on various social media platforms, this never deter the frontliners from ensuring the recoveries and the containment of the killer Coronavirus in the country.

The care-givers tasked to work on the virus have been locked down with suspected individuals at different isolated centres, sacrificing their lives and that of their families every day and night in a manner that can quickly infect themselves.

Whether they got their shares of the much-talked about D500 million or not, they continue the sleepless night that disconnected them from their wives and children.

The frontliners are the public health officers, the nurses, doctors and security officers who are in the forefront to take care of these individuals to make sure preventive mechanisms are enforced.

Gambian health worker testing the temperature of a man who just crossed from Senegal through Giboroh border
Gambian health worker testing the temperature of a man who just crossed from Senegal through Giboroh border

As part of the coordination, different units are created to contain the virus from spreading. Amongst them are a rapid response team which is charged with responsibility of picking suspected cases, contact tracing team would later pick all the known associates of the infected person. The laboratory technicians then carry out the tests while nurses and doctors would attend to patients at the treatment centres.

This work is obviously risky considering the mode of transmission of the virus. While everybody is at risk including those, who are asked to stay home, yet those in the frontline are unmatched but their efforts are largely unnoticed.

“We are at different levels of risks. Imagine those at the quarantine sites, opening the door to a person whose status is not known as positive or negative. You enter to give that person services that the individual needed. Although you are in protective gears, you are at high risk,” Dr. Buba Manjang, acting director of public health services in Gambia.

Dr. Manjang speaking to The Chronicle

“That laboratory technician who goes to face this individual even though the person is in full gear, uses that test kit to collect samples on this individual. Sometimes these people sneeze on you as you collect samples. These are people who are at high risk,” he tells The Chronicle.

He also acknowledges the risks nurses and doctors are faced with in directly providing treatment to the infected persons at the treatment centres.

According to The Guardian’s Monday edition, the number of doctors who have died because of Covid-19 in the UK is 100 or more.

‘I missed my family’

“What I want Gambians to know both in and out is that your frontliners are here for you making sure that we enforce all these preventive measures to prevent the spread of this virus to our communities, to our families, our country which is highly devastating. This kills rapidly.”

Irrespective of social media comments, he said health workers in the frontline are focused on fighting a genuine cause for the love of the country.

“I miss my family a lot because we spent the night here. You can see the commitment in all these staff. We decided to stay here without visiting our families to avoid the spread of the virus because the materials we are wearing probably get the virus on it. I want Gambians to love their frontliners. Let them give us encouragement because we are not interested in politics,” Dr. Manjang emphasised.

When suspects are taken from the community level by contact tracers, they’re brought to the quarantine centres. Their bodies’ temperatures are monitored for signs and symptoms for a 14-day incubation period. This is one another area that puts health workers at risk.

“In this process, we always feel that we can contract the virus even though we put on our Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). By this, we are very exposed. We are aware of these risks but we are doing this for our country and also, we are trained to be health personnel,” Ebrima Keita, public health worker tells The Chronicle.

Abandoned for being a care-giver  

The health workers are sometimes led to go home to see their families if need arises. However, some of them are not welcomed with open arms due to their interaction with suspected cases.

“No one is going home except that if we need to attend to some important family issues. Sometimes when I go home, I really feel isolated because even my friends will not allow me to be with me.

Ebrima Keita, public health officer at the quarantine centre

“If I want to greet my neighbours, they would say I shouldn’t be close to them because I’m coming from the centre. So, I feel discriminated against somehow when I visit home but this is my work and I do understand their concern. Sometimes my child would call me to enquire if I am safe, I would say yes,” Ebrima tells The Chronicle.

Telling a person, you’ve the virus 

Due to the surge in suspected cases in the country, a trained social worker, Jim Jobe felt the need to enlist himself in the frontline for service provision.

“I know what I can do regarding this work knowing that there are people who are picked from homes and brought here and they obviously need psycho-social support.”

His role is to prepare the individual psychologically, mentally and physically so that they understand and accept that they have the Coronavirus when they are told.

“It’s not easy to tell the individual that you have a coronavirus. It’s very difficult and challenging as well. Everything is based on counselling because whenever they are quarantined, we have to prepare them.

Jim Jobe, social worker attending to people who are quarantined as COVID-19 suspects

He said the reaction of the people who are confirmed to be positive depends on the counsellor or the individual who does the post test result as to how you are going to carry out your activities.

“We talk to them in a very professional way that if they are negative how they would feel, if they are positive how they would feel and you prepare their mind on that. Actually, the one I had contact with took it in a good fate and that’s it. They were no problem, no difficulties at all,” Jim tells The Chronicle.

In terms of being at risk as a care-giver, Jim admitted saying risk is high but preventable. But what is not preventable is how much he misses his family.

“It’s very difficult sometimes but they understand that it’s a national call for a national duty. Even if it’s going to warrant us to stay here for one year, we have to do it to serve our nation. But thank God most of them have an understanding particularly of my wife because every day we communicate to know how I am feeling but also for me to know how she is feeling at home as well as my child.”

PPE not 100 percent protective   

A public health worker, Lamin Saidyfaye says they’re using the PPE to minimize the risk anytime they are visiting the suspects’ rooms. However, it’s not 100 percent guaranteed.

“We are always going to be at risk because the virus is not visible even though we use the PPE. But the most important thing is the risk exposure we are going to get and that’s why we put on the PPE before starting and during the service period.”

Lamin attended to several suspects who were later confirmed positive of the virus. But he was not extremely worried because he is always prepared.

Lamin Saidyfaye, public health officer working in the frontline

“They were under our care and we picked them from the airport. We also identified certain people and their results were positive after the test. I always encourage my colleagues to put on the PPEs before touching them so that when it comes, we know we were protected.”

But like all the others, Lamin misses his family particularly his wife. According to him, he has no choice but to sacrifice for the State.

“This is a national call. Even last night I didn’t sleep because we went to pick up three times and it’s sometimes difficult to do this with local contacts.”

Trauma  

With the death toll of healthcare givers increasing daily across the world, Alieu Daffeh is becoming worried about safety.

“It’s very risky because when you watch the news it’s the frontliners who are dying consistently elsewhere. What happens is like you would obviously become traumatized and begin to say wow! Here I’m dealing with the suspects and I don’t know their status. This means if they are positive, there is a high chance we could also have the virus.So, that level of risk, not only physically but mentally you are being disturbed,” he said in an exclusive with The Chronicle.

Alieu Daffeh, frontline worker stationed at the quarantine centre

However, he’s not running away from his responsibility, stating that the work will continue until every Gambian is protected. He said it is worth him missing his mother for weeks just to see the protection of all.

“I miss my family. My mom is so worried and every day she’s calling me. We are in constant contact to let them know that I’m fine. Even if I should visit my family, I always make sure it is at night when the kids are sleeping because they would always interact with you physically.”

A student’s sacrifice 

Haita Ndibalan is a final year university student studying public health. She’s with the conviction that even as a student, an emergency situation calls for rapid and collective responsibility.

“As a public student I believe it is a mandate for everyone from such a department to take it upon themselves to help the nation in such a situation. It’s an emergency and I believe sitting at home will be the greatest failure for the health personnel to do.”

I take this as a sacrifice because I missed my family so much. I’ve been here for two weeks now. I’m sure my mom and dad missed me too but they’re coping since they know their daughter is in the system.”

Hatai Ndimbalan – final year UTG Public Health student working in the frontline

Like Haita and many others, Yankuba Suwareh also spent two weeks away from his family.

“Even phone calls are a problem sometimes due to the demand of my work here. It’s highly risky because every day you see them, talk to them, listen to them and give them the support they need. I feel that I can contract the virus anytime though we take precautions regularly using the PPEs.”

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