The Gambia registered its first COVID-19 case on March 17, 2020, involving a female Gambian returnee from the United Kingdom. The number of cases and the rate of infection increased, albeit at a slow rate, until mid-July. The President declared a state of public health emergency starting from March 27, including closing all non-essential public and private businesses, following an earlier order to close the airspace and land borders. Emergency powers were used to freeze prices of essential commodities such as rice, meat, fish, cooking oil soap, sanitizers, and cement. To enforce social distancing, all commercial vehicles were allowed to carry only up to half of their licensed number of passengers. All public gatherings, including funerals, were limited to a maximum of 10 people. Nevertheless, there was a surge in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases by mid-July, mainly through community transmission involving many healthcare workers and high-level government officials. The surge strained the already fragile health system and stretched government’s ability to properly respond to the pandemic, especially in terms of testing and management of treatment centers.
The imposition and extension of the state of public health emergency have not been plain sailing. The National Assembly declined to approve a second 45-day extension of the state of public health emergency after the expiration of the first. However, based on the role played by the emergency measures in containing the spread of the disease, the President used executive powers to extend it by 21 days, effective May 19 (which is the maximum allowed under the Constitution, as the National Assembly was then not in session). Since the expiration of the extension, the President used executive powers again (on June 10, July 1, and July 7) to extend the state of public health emergency, mainly for 7 days, which is the maximum permissible period under the constitution when the National Assembly is in session. Concerned by the extensions of the state of public health emergency without parliamentary approval, the Gambia Bar Association, and the National Assembly in particular, questioned the legitimacy of such extensions. The Attorney General and Minister of Justice presented a motion at the National Assembly around July 13 for a 45-day extension of the public health emergency laws, but it failed to proceed after majority of the lawmakers voted against it. The situation led to an announcement by President Barrow of another 7-day extension of the public health emergency to July 22, 2020. At the same time, the presidency urged the public to observe strict social distancing, and imposed a mandatory wearing of facemasks in all public places including inside taxis and other public transports, markets, and schools; while empowering the Minister of Health to take any restrictive measure required to contain the disease. With the mid-July surge in the number of new Covid-19 infections, the presidency announced another 21-day public emergency regulation, effective August 6, 2020. The regulation imposed a night-time curfew between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. and re-introduced a ban on all public gatherings and closure of all non-essential businesses, educational institutions, and places of worship. A subsequent extension of the emergency regulation on August 27 eased some of the emergency restrictions, including the opening of places of worship, albeit under strict COVID-19 protocols. It also maintained the ban on public gatherings and the night-time curfew, which was relaxed subsequently on September 17 together with market restrictions. In anticipation of the re-opening of the tourism season in October, and in the bid to attract tourists, the authorities announced, on September 4, an amendment to their guidelines on COVID-19 prevention. They abolished the two-week mandatory quarantine for inbound travelers and required evidence of a negative COVID-19 test result of less than 72 hours from all passengers prior to departure to The Gambia. Those without the required certificate as well as those who are COVID-19 positive will be quarantined. Meanwhile, following the second wave of the surge in Covid-19 cases and the emergence of a new strain of the virus in America, Europe and parts of Africa, the authorities have amended their rules regarding visits to The Gambia. Effective January 9, travelers coming from countries where the new strain of the Covid-19 virus is identified will have to undergo (i) testing for the virus upon arrival, in addition to the requirement to have a valid COVID-19 PCR test result of no more than 72 hours; and (ii) mandatory quarantine at their own cost. The resumption and continued surge in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases compelled the authorities to announce on February 17 the suspension of issuance of police permits for all forms of political and social events, including music festivals. The new measures came into effect on March 8, 2021. The Ministry of Health (MoH) on May 27, 2021, announced the detection, in The Gambia, of the new variant of Covid-19 identified in India. Consequently, it updated its testing and quarantine protocols and now requires all passengers arriving from India to possess a negative PCR test valid for 72hrs, with an additional measure of quaranting all such passengers for 72hrs at their own expense. Generally, all arriving passengers with positive Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) will be quarantined for a maximum of 72hrs at their own expense and will further undergo a free PCR testing.
Tourism, a key driver of trade and foreign exchange inflows, has halted. Interest rates on T-bills increased at the onset of the pandemic but have eased on the back of subdued inflation and measures taken by the Central Bank to support market liquidity. Remittances from official channels have remained exceptionally high, in part, due to a reduction in private transfers through informal channels (which have since migrated to formal channels) and remittances from the Gambian diaspora in response to COVID-19. At the onset of the pandemic, a supplementary appropriation bill was approved by the National Assembly to accommodate spending on the health emergency and social support, and to facilitate the recovery through infrastructure spending and support to the tourism sector and other public entities affected by the pandemic.
Vaccination. The Gambia is part of the African Union's COVAX initiative that is supporting the country with AstraZeneca vaccines to cover about 20 percent of the population. The World Bank approved, on April 19, 2021, US$8 million grant to provide and deploy COVID-19 vaccines to cover 40 percent of the population; while the African Centre for Decease Control (CDC) is providing 12, 000 vaccine doses. The authorities received some 37,000 syringes under the COVAX initiative, ahead of the arrival of 36,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on March 3. The first tranche of syringes, shipped from the Gavi-funded stockpile at UNICEF's humanitarian warehouse in Dubai, also included 375 safety boxes for the safe disposal of used syringes. The country also received 15,000 doses of Astra Zeneca vaccine through the MTN/AFRICA CDC donation. Senegal also offered 10,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccines to The Gambia. As of May 28, 2021, 33,819 people received Covid-19 vaccines of which 4,671 representing 0.2 percent of the population are now fully vaccinated. The authorities, while reportedly making efforts to secure additional stocks of Covid-19 vaccines have now shifted their priorities to administering the second dose to people who had already taken their first dose due to the low stock of the vaccines in the country.
Reopening of the economy. A government announcement on Wednesday July 22 lifted the state of public health emergency and thus re-opened the economy, which first started with a gradual easing of emergency restrictions that helped a partial re-opening of businesses. Fuel prices were reduced to prevent transport price hikes and help ease the burden on commercial transport operators who were then required to carry 3/4 of their vehicle capacities. The authorities also eased restrictions, including the re-opening of markets up to 6 p.m., the re-opening of Mosques, Churches, and schools for Grades 9 and 12 students who were preparing for their sub-regional junior and senior secondary school leaving certificate exams. The government issued on October 6 a press release announcing the re-opening of all weekly markets dubbed ‘Lumos,’ which are very popular in the rural areas. It also announced a two-thronged resumption of face-to-face learning, which began with the re-opening of all Junior & Senior Secondary schools, and tertiary institutions on October 14; followed by a re-opening of kindergartens and primary schools on October 28. The authorities also announced on October 16, the immediate re-opening of the country’s borders, although the airport remained closed for renovation until it was reopened at end-October. They authorities also relaxed the restrictions on the night clubs and casinos, following an earlier decision to only allow the re-opening of hotels, bars, restaurants, and gymnasia.
Meanwhile, in response to the initial easing of emergency restrictions earlier in Senegal, and the possibility of increases in cross-border infections, The Gambian authorities resolved to protecting the country’s international borders (air, land, and sea) and enhanced cross-border monitoring and control. They have built testing centers across the regions, increased the number of quarantine centers, and converted one of the country’s main referral hospitals into a COVID-19 treatment center. The authorities also announced a plan to embark on a mass country-wide testing campaign. This plan was seriously affected by an overwhelming surge, in mid-July, in the number of COVID-19 cases, with many healthcare workers and high-level government officials testing positive. The WFP’s Passenger Air Service made its inaugural flight to The Gambia on June 8, 2020, with planned two trips per week. SN Brussels Airlines started weekly ad-hoc flights to The Gambia on June 22 and had since the beginning of November, increased the frequency of their flights to three per week. Turkish Airline also resumed its weekly flight to Banjul onOctober 4, while Royal Air Maroc, Asky and Air Senegal resumed their flights to Banjulin late November–early December. The Gambia Experience’s maiden flight for the 2020/2021 first tourists flight landed, on Wednesday December 9, with 147 passengers. The company suspended its flights in early January as the number of COVID-19 cases surged in The Gambia and passengers from England were required to quarantine at own cost.