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Gambia: Where Covid-19 stigma empties hospitals

Sick people in The Gambia who would normally be bound for healthcare centres for medical attention have been avoiding hospitals like the plague for fear of stigmatization over coronavirus.However, like almost every corner of the globe, where people are struggling to make sense of a pandemic that has claimed north of 160, 000 lives worldwide, these are unusual times in The Gambia.

Since unsubstantiated reports of suspected Covid-19 cases being ostracized by society, a growing number of people has been reluctant to visit medical facilities, dreading the implications of being pigeonholed as carriers of coronavirus.

The resulting scene has been virtually empty hospitals and healthcare centres where bustling queues of patients lining for treatment are a thing of the past.   

From the Serrekunda General Hospital to health centres in nearby Bakau and beyond, medical facilities in urban Gambia look deserted for long periods of the day and night.

In the grounds of those facilities medical workers look forlorn, listless and tired more out of idleness than work-induced fatigue.

People with complaints for common diseases such as malaria, fever, common cold and diabetes prefer nursing themselves anywhere but public hospitals. 

The fear of stigmatization more than anything else is fueling this lukewarm attitude towards hospitals.

“I escorted my grandmother to Serrekunda General Hospital, and I was amazed by the very few people I saw there” said Ousman Demba. 

“I think this is because many people are living with the fear that they might be diagnosed with the virus, even if they are suffering from other more common diseases like malaria, ” Mr. Demba told the Africa Press Agency.

Fatou Ceesay, acknowledged being among those avoiding hospitals in this time of coronavirus outbreak. 

Others see a dangerous irony visiting Gambian hospitals.

Thanks to the crowds they attract, such medical facilities are some of the surest places to contract the virus given that like markets people do not respect the social distancing regulation advised by international and local health officials. 

At the Serrekunda General Hospital, a small team of health workers aimed their lone thermometer gun with its blue beam at the foreheads of people who still took turns entering the facility in dribs and drabs. 

Just outside its gate stood an unmissable plastic container full of liquified detergent for the mandatory hand-washing, a cornerstone of the hgyiene regulations to prevent person-to-person infections.

Last month, a health official there intimated to the African Press Agency that a suspected Covid-19 case was quarantined there apparently without the knowledge of members of the public many of whom stayed away from the hospital anyway.

No Covid-19 tests take place there despite it being the biggest referral hospital in Gambia’s main metropole together with the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital in Banjul.

That distinction is reserved for the British-run Medical Research Council (MRC) where all tests for the coronavirus have been taken since the first suspected case of the virus surfaced in The Gambia.  

However, like a few exceptions to the general rule, Hoja Gaye will not lose sleep about being prone to stigmatization over coronavirus.

For Ms. Gaye, it is business as usual, leaving her to worry more about her health than how society will see her in relation to the virus. 

“A few days ago I was not feeling well, and went to hospital…am not afraid, because I know it is not all about coronavirus as other diseases also exist,” the young woman said not oblivious of the fact that the deadly pandemic has taken treacherous forms in other parts of the world where seemingly healthy people turned out positive. 

As one local commentator shrewdly observed, “positive” has been the most negative word of the year so far.

Meanwhile, social stigma as a result of the coronavirus also include harassing chance sneezers and coughers letting go in the midst of others. 

Thus commuters in The Gambia make conscious efforts to avoid sneezing or coughing in public lest they become the butt of unflattering remarks about being possible carriers of the virus and out to infect others.

The Health ministry recently announced that the country’s confirmed case of the virus has reached double digits, ten to be precise and one fatality, rendering wary Gambians warier and driving their survival instincts back to primordial inclinations. 

Aside from the psychological burden posed by the pandemic on the population, pressure on the government to inspire hope and deliver against a disease that is still little known, could never be greater. 

Successive Gambian governments have inherited a difficult campaign against Africa’s foremost killer disease malaria.

With the threat from Covid-19 now more real than imagined, malaria has drastically been relegated to the back-burner in the national scale of medical preferences. 

With billboards, talk shows and dramas, sensitisations on the prevention and control of Covid-19 are intensifying nationwide everyday but in the words of Dr. Momodou Gassama, Health Promotion Specialist at the WHO Office in Banjul, the country cannot afford to underestimate the dangers posed by other diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and malaria. 

Like the crusade against AIDS, the stigma that attends to Covid-19 will further complicate the fight against this deadly respiratory illness which many health experts warn may take years to contain globally. 

In the meantime, Gambians like Fatou Ceesay will avoid hospitals like the plague as long as Covid-19 is around.


Published on 28.04.2020

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