Gambia: Where Covid-19 ambulance sirens are terrifying

It may be five months since Gambia's first case of the deadly coronavirus, but people are still struggling to come…

It may be five months since Gambia’s first case of the deadly coronavirus, but people are still struggling to come to terms with the intermittent blaring of ambulance sirens as suspected Covid-19 patients are spirited to seclusion centres. Aside from the apocalyptic reality of four out of every five people wearing face masks as an enforced public health regulation, the sights and sounds of speeding ambulances are the new normal in a country where a spike in Covid-19 cases has left many confused, jittery and fearing for the worst.

In normal times, the sound of ambulance sirens portended something serious but in these Covid-19 times in The Gambia, every health emergency vehicle on the road blaring its horns sends a chill down most spines.

For people in The Gambia, nothing more reminds them of a matter of life and death than medical vehicles transporting cases (confirmed or suspected) to treatment centres.

As of the last count last Thursday at least 33 people have died out of 1,477 cases of the virus and with tests churning out an average of 50 cases on a daily basis, the country’s fledgling health system is teetering on the brink.

Some among the small army of medical workers drafted in  to tackle the pandemic have warned that the health system is nearing total collapse as cases keep quadrupling every 24 hours since the end of July.

“If somethings are more terrifying than death, the sound of an approaching ambulance in these crazy times is one of them” said a Nigerian market trader identified only as Pastor.

The lean 50-year old was reacting as two brand new ambulances, their sirens blaring through the afternoon calm of an otherwise bustling Coastal Road junction in Old Yundum town sped past.

The vehicles were the latest consignment of ambulances procured by the government to give more bite to its fight against the pandemic which seems to be hitting a peak in August 2020.

“Now whenever I see or hear an ambulance, I can’t help thinking of the worst for whoever is inside it” said a face mask-wearing Isatou Dibba, just before flagging a taxi for a town trip home in nearby Wellingara.

Some fifteen minutes drives away at the busy intersection of the Brusubi roundabout in the throbbing heart of the country’s small metropolis, pedestrians and others milling on the roadside stood rooted to the spot as an ambulance rushed by, bringing traffic to a standstill.

Health workers on the front line had just responded to an emergency call from unidentified neighbours at the Brusubi settlement that two individuals were showing signs of the virus and needed to be taken away and isolated.  

The sight of an ambulance in a Gambian neighbourhood attempting to whisk away a suspected case is enough to attract curious crowds wanting to know who is being “arrested” by a Covid-19 medical team.

The stigmatisation of those with confirmed cases has not helped, causing a reluctance to report infections by those living with relatives and friends showing signs and symptoms of the disease.

Ambulances rushing by are not the only sign of the gathering momentum of a public health emergency.

A night-time curfew, a partial lockdown of non-essential businesses, a renewed ban on group worships in mosques and churches and the compulsory use of face mask are some of the regulations in place indefinitely as the health authorities battle this new scourge