The Gambia’s Response to Covid-19: Socio-Economic & Human Rights Implications
The Gambia survives on a small economy relying primarily on tourism, agriculture and foreign aid. The World Travel and Tourism Council reports that tourism and travel are responsible for creating 19% of total employment in The Gambia and according to the World Bank, 22% of the 2018 real gross domestic product (GDP) came from the tourism sector. With agriculture, about 75% of the population depends on crops and livestock for their livelihood. These activities include the processing of peanuts, fish, and animal hides.
Upon the declaration of the World Health Organization (WHO) that the Covid-19 is a global pandemic. States across the world are taking measures such as declaring a state of emergency, lockdowns and physical distancing measures to prevent the human to human transmission of the virus and the Gambia is not an exception.
The enforcement of measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 has had immense impact on the Gambia’s premier livelihood activities and economy. CNBC Africa estimates that real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth projected for 2020 has been revised from 6.3 percent to 2.5 percent and the balance of payments outlook has weakened by about US$46 million (2.4 percent of GDP).
But these measures have proven to be challenging, not just for the economy but for the people as well. For a small country like the Gambia with a high poverty rate of 48%, ranking 174 out of 189 countries on the 2019 Human Development Index. She does not have the option to choose an efficient and complete lockdown as the government lacks the recourses to maintain the social safety net.
Additionally, the blanket roll out of measures copied from the west are sometimes insensitive to local contexts and living realities. The privileges that the global north has in terms of gloves, masks, hand sanitizers and rapid testing for the virus is not in place in countries like The Gambia. Survival is a dim reality as the social distancing measures and the current culture of buying goods in bulk to reduce the frequency of going out, can only work when people can afford it.
There is also an imminent threat as most people earn minimum wages meaning that survival rests on going out to fend for oneself. To this end, the WHO guidelines, most importantly social distancing and ‘’frequent hand washing with soap’’ may be a challenge for most. Water supply is erratic in the urban areas resulting in most households not having running water. Social distancing within extended family settings with 10 people to a bathroom is not feasible. Additionally, there is high illiteracy levels, chronic malnutrition and poor sanitation services which all exacerbates the spread of the virus.
As of 23rd April, the Gambia has registered 10 Covid-19 cases and one death. The President on 18th March 2020 signed the first Proclamation in relation to the pandemic, which was published in the gazette under Section 34(1) (b) of the 1997 Constitution. He confirmed that a state of public emergency is inevitable if the situation does not change.
Subsequently, he signed a second Proclamation declaring a state of public emergency in The Gambia on 27th March 2020. The president declared that government operations should be scaled down and institutions should have minimal staff to perform basic services. Staff are also encouraged to work from home and only ‘’essential staff’’ should report to work. Private businesses who deal with non-essential goods were instructed to close with immediate effect.
Thereafter, an Essential Commodities Committee was set up to enforce the Regulations. Additionally, the government approved a Five Hundred Million Dalasi (D500 Million) emergency fund to cover Covid-19 issues, which the Ministries of Health and Finance are working on.
Notwithstanding the looming and continuing threat of the Covid-19, and successes measures have registered in some parts of the world. The Government of the Gambia issued a press release on the 17th March, 2020 amending or easing some of the state of emergency rules. Under the new declaration, all persons in food trading are allowed to open their businesses within a specific time.
In light of the current development, and considering that the Gambia is not embarking on a mass Covid-19 testing, the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare’s recent projection that if the Covid-19 is not contained, a total of one hundred and eighty one thousand Gambians could be infected is highly likely.
Human Rights Implications
- In 2017, the Gambia exported $174M and imported $1.16B, with China been the top import destination of the Gambia. This means that The Gambia relies on China for commodities as basic as rice, sugar, oil and clothes. With the current status quo, there is a significant drop in supplies due to the closure of borders. There has also been reports of price gouging especially of essentials such as public transport and food.
- So far, there has not been any relief schemes or packages as far as its response to food to help vulnerable families is concerned, specifically taking into consideration gender, age, disability and other vulnerable groups. As a result of this gap, people are not adhering with the lockdown measures as they would need to fend for themselves in order to survive.
- The advice that the World Health Organisation has issued to hand wash with soap and social distancing is premised on the assumption that people have access to running water and live in expensive neighbourhoods which is not the case. The recommendation to sanitize also presupposes that people can afford hand sanitizers and masks that cost around $5-$10, or stay at home without income.
- Besides the health implications, increasing hunger and loss of income which the International Labour Organisation estimates that up to 25 million jobs may be lost worldwide due to the pandemic, there is also the issue of the government not being entirely transparent about the spending of resources especially donor funding on Covid-19 response. The World Bank Board has aided The Gambia with a $10 million grant from the International Development Association (IDA) to deal with the pandemic. However, up to date there has not been any communication to inform the populace on how the money shall be spent.
Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights both provide for adequate standards of living, food and housing. Bearing in mind that The Gambia is a state party to both instruments. It is vital that proactive measures that are suited to our reality are taken to deal with the emerging issues that might leave more devastating effects than the virus itself.
Developed countries have had ways of containing and strengthening their health systems to respond to the pandemic. Meanwhile African countries have to deal with poor health systems coupled with insufficient resources. It is imperative that the Gambia, but by extension Africa should look for an Afro-centric solution that takes into consideration the political, social and economic environments. A solution that will be founded on consultation with the masses and context specific. As it is, people can only follow these measures if their basic needs are being fulfilled.
One such solution moving forward is to invest in local markets and manufacturing. This is the time to think of the shift from heavily depending on finished products from China and think investing into training the youthful population of The Gambia, financing industries and entrepreneurship and encouraging the populace to consume local. The reliance on the tourism industry which has often proven to be very volatile should shift to other sectors that have the potential to thrive if adequately supported such as agriculture, technology and solar energy.
Finally, this article reiterates the advice from the International Monetary Fund that the government should work towards an efficient targeting and timely delivery of social assistance and essential services to the most affected. This requires a baseline survey to ensure informed interventions at all levels.