The Gambia Health Minister Dr. Amadou Samateh receives Coronavirus PPE from Jack Ma Foundation from China

Just four months ago, much of the world’s dwellers were going by their businesses as normal until China declared the Coronavirus outbreak which became known as COVID-19 in the city of Wuhan. A few weeks later, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak a global pandemic. Now there are more than 1.7 million confirmed cases of coronavirus in 210 countries and territories and at least 100,000 people have died globally.

This global pandemic has caused enormous challenges and disruptions to the daily lives of us all. However, as Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. Each can spell either salvation or doom.” I believe We can and we should use this as an opportunity for us to come together and have a common purpose of changing our country for good. 

Mr President, as you may be aware, when the pandemic peaked in China, the Chinese were able to build a new hospital in Wuhan in just 10 days to combat COVID-19. Meanwhile, the British also managed to convert an exhibition centre to a new NHS Nightingale Hospital in London in 9 days. In the case of Britain, the hospital is built mainly by the Military and citizen volunteers. Of course, China and Britain are two economic giants that cannot be compared to The Gambia. However, they managed to build those hospitals not entirely because of their economic might, but because they have the political will, determination and resolute not to see any more lives being lost than necessary.  

Mr President, I believe that everything begins with a vision for a better future and a passion for one’s country and people, with perseverance, every obstacle is overcome. Perseverance conquers all difficulties. Now is the time to reflect and think about how best we can improve our healthcare system because if anything we can all agree on Mr President, is the unquantifiable economic and social impact COVID-19 is having and will continue to have on the world in a foreseeable future. 

Thus far, as your government has rightly done so, almost all the international air spaces and land borders are currently closed, so in the event, you, your family, members of your cabinet or anyone in the country who can afford it fall ill and wants to go for an overseas treatment now, will most certainly find it difficult if not impossible Mr President to do so. I believe we have the human capital to change our healthcare for better, what we may be lacking is the political will to do just that.

Mr President, I am aware of the plans your government and Minister of Health Dr Amadou Samateh unveiled with regards to the country’s response to COVID-19 pandemic. I must say, I’m in awe of the job so far he is doing. Yes, the infectious disease centre is a long term plan that frankly should have been in place long before your government, however, it is welcomed. Also, his plans to stock the hospitals with ventilators, PPEs as well as renovate the existing hospitals are all moves in the right direction. 

However, those alone are not enough to solve the country’s chronic health crisis. Mr President, the Gambia is confronted by a heavy burden of diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV – not to mention mental health, cancer, chronic lung diseases, arthritis etc. According to the WHO 2016 statistics, more than half a million Gambians have hypertension and in 2018 one hundred and twenty thousand have diabetes that’s 27% and 6% of the country’s population respectively. The figures are grimed and perhaps under-reported. 

So, we need vision for a long term plan when after we emerge from this global pandemic. If your government call a stakeholder conference where an invitation is sent to every Gambian expert in the country or the diaspora, friends of the Gambia and potential investors who have an interest in healthcare to come together and brainstorm the way forward for a better healthcare system in the country, Mr President, you will be surprised with the responses as well as the outcome of the brainstorming. We can use that as the foundation and come up with a lasting solution to the healthcare crisis we currently face. 

Mr President, one can take Cuba for example, they are small, relatively poor and has been under the United States‘ embargo for over five-decades but yet, their healthcare system is amongst the best in the world. Our country is testament to that fact as Cuba has supplied us with many doctors over the years. Recently they have sent doctors to many other countries including Italy a country with an admirable healthcare system but overwhelmed with the COVID-19 pandemic. One may ask, how is Cuba able to do this? Again, its the political will and the determination to be self-sufficient and reliant. 

Cuba’s model was rooted in everyone’s psyche not just by rhetoric but by actions in way of building and maintaining health facilities. They have some of the finest medical schools and institutions in the Caribbean and Latin AmericaCuba’s national health system is made up of multiple layers including the community containing individuals and families; family doctor-and-nurse teams; basic work teams; community polyclinics; hospitals, and medical institutes. All these have their functions and they do not overlap. We could build similar structures and made it people centre by making sure the entire country not only feel part and parcel of it but also take ownership of their healthcare system. 

I hope Mr President, you and your government will see the opportunities from the current pandemic and make the necessary changes in our healthcare system that the Gambia so desperately needs. “To the Gambia ever true.”