‘’Whenever crisis strike, it is invariably the poor and the vulnerable that suffer the most”. Mostly, not only are they directly affected by the crisis, but it’s usually the derived socio-economic, psychological, and environmental scars left unattended that cause the greatest intangible damages in these communities. We have seen these time and time again.
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, we are obviously concerned about the impacts on the rural communities of the world’s poorest regions. It is not yet clear to what extent the virus will spread to these vulnerable regions that host more than three quarters of the world's poorest populations without access to standard healthcare delivery systems.
The effects of COVID-19 can be categorized into three major areas: economic social and the direct impact of the virus itself. The way these effects are translating into rural contexts need particular consideration’’ (Source IFAD).
In The Gambia, most of the border towns are located in the rural parts of the country with little or no access to modern facilities. Prime example is Farafenni, located in the north bank region of the country, which is a strategically important business centre that links northern Gambia with southern Senegal, thus making it the busiest border town between the two countries.
Farafenni is the most economically vibrant border town that also hosts a weekly local market called Lumo, showcasing exotic goods from both SeneGambia regions, thus making it the most vulnerable area due to constant cross-border inter-mingling between the two territories. Over the years, as regional ties increased, it was evident that public service delivery was more efficient on the southern side of the border. This event attracted more Gambians to acquire homes in the Senegalese regions, thus making it very difficult to curtail the movement of people between the two boundaries.
The borders are very porous and policing them becomes extremely difficult for authorities of both countries. Effective coordination is required from all stakeholders in the fight against COVID-19. COVID-19 has significantly affected the economic activities of the people living and working within the Farafenni area. Below are the three groups of communities that have been severely hit and are highly vulnerable to the Coronavirus.
Young Madrasa Children (Talibehs):
The situation of young children within Farafenni, a community that shows apparent disregard for established health guidelines against COVID-19, is alarmingly worrisome. The living condition of the madrasa children (talibehs), who depend largely on street and door-to-door begging for daily sustenance, with no regard to social distancing is worth looking into and addressing.
These “talibeh” kids whose host families are themselves destitute and highly vulnerable to the viral pandemic as well, are usally left with no choice but to force these juveniles into begging to support both the talibehs and themselves (sheikhs/religious teachers). The talibehs come from the both territories of SeneGambia surrounding the greater Farfenni areas and are placed under the custody of religious leaders who lack the financial independence to support these youths and resort to begging for sustenance.
Farafenni, being a crossroad that connects the northern and southern parts of Senegal through the Senegambia Bridge, makes it highly vulnerable to cross-border transmission of the virus through these children.
The Motorcycle Taxis (Jakartaa):
Another group that has been economically hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic is the local motorcycle taxis or “Jakartaa” operators. This group of people, mostly young men, depend heavily on their motorcycle transportation business for daily bread and have had to cease operations due to border control and restrictive orders from central authority during the state of public emergency. As a greater majority of these people depend on daily hustle to meet their sustenance, adherence to COVID-19 guidelines become very difficult to adapt to.
To many, you are condemned to impoverishment and starvation if you do comply to the restrictions. If you don’t, you may get killed by the Coronavirus. The Jakarta operators could potentially have a very high rate of transmitting the virus due to their extreme exposure with unknown passengers coming in and out of porous border villages. Due to their flexibility and affordability, a large number of people use their services, thus posing huge risks of transmission by asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 whose interactions with the local population could neither be traced, nor monitored.
Local Market or Lumo Traders:?
Farafenni is a community mostly composed of local traders, majority of whom are very active in the weekly regional markets held between the two countries. The closure of the border and weekly lumos has made it extremely difficult for the majority of the traders, thus limiting them to a single overcrowded local market. This inflow of new traders in these single markets poses high risks for the transmission of the Coronavirus.
CA’s Recommendations & Proposed Strategies
- The Gambia, like most African countries, has put in place precautionary measures to control and avoid new cases of COVID-19. However, such awareness efforts are yet to be realized along remote border towns and villages of the country. The Red Cross has so far been doing an exceptional job, raising awareness and keeping records of all people crossing between the main border checkpoints.
With the pandemic still in force without an end or cure in sight, these vital activities must continue at the borders even after the restrictions are lifted. However, the work the Red Cross is doing is already being limited due lack of resources thus we recommend the government consider putting out more resources and support for the volunteers across the country to be able to continue.
Drawing from lessons learned during the Ebola crisis, the Red Cross was one of the most effective agencies that helped to promote long-term healthy practices and provided information on cultural and social norms and community dynamics, information which proved invaluable in responding to the crisis then and can be just as valuable now if not more.
CA will recommend the government, through the Ministry of Health, to provide adequate support, training and resources (PPEs and other relevant equipment), conducive working conditions and incentives to personnel at the border. This will enable them to continue to effectively carry out their activities at the border now and after the restrictions are lifted including: guiding people to hand washing station, helping promote physical distances, identifying and temporarily isolating persons displaying signs and symptoms of COIDV-19, record entries and contact tracing.
CA shall in this process, embark on community engagements to proffer varieties of workable solutions to arresting the transmission of COVID-19 at the border towns and beyond.
- There are also no known or clearly communicated isolation centres created by the government at the border and along the border towns. CA would like to draw attention to the need for such and raise the issue with the Ministry of Health to set and/or clearly communicate isolation centres as a critical measure to stem the spread of the virus especially in the face of the situation in Senegal.
- The above mentioned condition of the young children (talibehs) need urgent action by both the government of the Gambia and stakeholders and on the other of the border. CA supports working the religious teachers to establish ways to curb the movement of young children under their watch. Sensitize and updating then on COVID-19 and on national and international health expert’s recommendation. CA will also recommend the government to look into feeding subsidies to large scale madrassas. This will help minimise the need for the kids to go out and look for food. In the long-term, this group, like all others will need to be engaged with a view to understanding their perceptions, behaviours and needs to better address practises and norms that can escalade the spread of this deadly virus.
- Globally, we have seen motorcycle taxi services suspended amid the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures enforced strictly. The Gambia should not be any different. The Jakartaa operators at border towns in particular need more policing as they pose the greatest danger to our society. Their services could instead be directed towards to the delivery of essential goods for government and the public.
As we approach the easing of restrictions at the end of the state of public emergency, one still cannot be complacent as this would not necessarily mean the end of the pandemic. Jarkartaa drivers in Farafenni and other similar borders towns and the passengers they would carry would still be very much at risk of contracting and spreading the virus inland. There would therefore be the need to engage and monitor drivers and passengers; support them with PPEs and continually sensitisation them on the risk of spreading the virus as well as measures they could take to stop COIV-19.
- The easing of restrictions on markets and vendors around the country has been highly welcome due the economic impact the restrictions have had on people and their livelihoods however, CA holds that focus must not be taken away from the existence and threat of Coronavirus.
CA will recommend the local councils across the country continue observing the recommended guideline. Frequent and regular sanitizing of markets areas, encouraging the use of masks, carrying out effective sensitization and promoting the free flow of movement across the markets by properly organising and spacing out vendors, stalls and other users should be part of our new normal.
It is not lost on us that concerns over COVID-19 outside of the Greater Banjul Area is almost non-existent with a lot of doubt that the virus even exists (kombo kurango) and that there is total oblivion to the disease in some parts of the country. This would make sensitizing and engaging such communities more challenging nonetheless, it is the duty of the government to continue with the program, adopting and adapting appropriate measures and mechanisms in collaboration with each community.
- Lastly, CA will strongly believes in the engagement and involvement of community, political and religious leaders and administrators to take ownership in implementing and adapting the recommendation within their communities and in line with their way of live and their livelihood needs. Youth groups and women groups should also be properly engage.