The Chronicle Gambia

Social Distancing in Africa: Practical or Unrealistic

Let’s get this clear, declaring a total lockdown in African States is as unrealistic as thinking that social distancing in major areas of the continent would curb the spread of COVID-19. With one third of the Gambian population living in abrupt poverty (57 percent mostly in rural areas), living from hand to mouth, and barely able to eat a proper meal or have access to clean drinking water, the World Health Organization’s proposition of  “preventive measures” is a privilege few can afford. The COVID-19 pandemic has permeated all aspects of daily life. While some hope it will force us to rethink inequality and global access to healthcare, others believe the net effect of the pandemic will be to further entrench the divides that already exist.

In Africa, the crisis has not yet reached epic proportions. But the cracks caused by existing inequalities are already showing.


A published article from the International Monetary Fund commented on the outbreak’s impact on Africa stating “social distancing was not realistic for the most vulnerable, and the notion of working from home was only possible for the few”.

“The very measures that are crucial to slowing the spread of the virus will have a direct cost on local economies,” said IMF. “The disruption to people’s daily lives means less paid work, less income, less spending, and fewer jobs.”

In Senegal, the lockdown was imposed when the country had less than 24 known COVID-19 cases and most of whom had recently arrived from outside the country. If we assume there were a lot more people infected than the 24 confirmed, which is very likely, a nationwide lockdown did not prove to work in the African context given that people still continued to meet in numbers to shop in public places like market squares, supermarkets, and go about their days.

WHO has underlined the importance of washing hands regularly with clean running water as one of the key measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. It is shocking that in The Gambia, the country is still failing to guarantee the supply of clean running water free of pollution to 53% of the population.

Although the Government has made concerted efforts to improve the supply of clean water, major towns in the urban areas are still experiencing water shortages.

   Serekunda Market during covid-19

The border between Senegal and The Gambia has been closed. The two neighboring countries declared decisive measures – including travel restrictions – just after the first few positive cases were reported. But does that control the spread in any way? There have been reports of people crossing the border from each side.

Although closing borders contributes positively to the social distancing recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), the question is how practical such a measure will be for African countries with porous borders such as the one between Gambia and Senegal?

Knowing the realities on the ground, it is curious that the WHO and ministries of health in different African countries are recommending that people self-quarantine if they could have been exposed to COVID-19. In The Gambia, for example, a man travelling from the U.S. has potentially infected his wife and kids, accounting to more positive cases. Which raises the question: how are people in shared accommodation expected to self-isolate?

Slums and informal settlements are also part of the physical infrastructures of many African cities. All of them are overcrowded and lack basic public services even before the threat of a global health crisis emerged.

It is more practical for people who work in offices to “work from home”, but if your only means of livelihood is selling tomatoes or second-hand clothes at the market square, how do you cope?

For those concerned about the risk of exposure to the virus, the WHO recommends self-quarantining. This has so far included advice for people not to share bathrooms, living space and even bedrooms, if they can. But what if you live in a house where the bedroom doubles as a kitchen and living space – all shared with your (sometimes extended) family? Such recommendations are even more absurd if your source of water is a community tap or borehole, or if your toilet is one you share with a dozen other families. For many people forced to live on the margins of our societies, this is unfortunately a reality.

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