Gambia: COVID-19 and the mad rush for face masks!

Gambians are not in the habit of taking easily to personal hygiene kits but the demand for face masks has reached unprecedented levels less than 24hrs after the country confirmed its first coronavirus case.

A 21-year old Gambian woman who had returned from the UK was tested positive for the virus, causing the demand for personal protective gears to skyrocket.

At no point in living memory has the demand for face masks such a noticeable phenomenon in The Gambia.

By noon on Wednesday, Gambians have been scrambling for the item in a desperate bid to protect themselves from the airborne disease which is blighting much of the world, causing at least 7, 500 deaths globally.

In Bakoteh, a suburb of Gambia's biggest town Serrekunda, prospective commuters sport face masks as they waited patiently for transport to take them to work.

Across the road issued thick smoke from burning heaps of rubbish on a large dumpsite near which residents had lived for years without recognising the need to use face masks to protect themselves.

But confirmation of the coronavirus has changed all that even if it is to fend off another health hazard.

With the demand for face masks outstripping supply, the price of such personal safety kit which used to cost less than D25 in happier times, now go for D100 ($2), literally flying off the shelves of trade stores in some of the country's busiest markets.

This in-demand item used to be found only in major health facilities in The Gambia but since the coronavirus began its rampage across Africa, it has become one of the most visible things associated with personal protection, hygiene and prevention all over the world.

In The Gambia drivers, commuters and pedestrians, have joined medical practitioners in wearing them as part of the precautionary measures being encouraged by the Gambia government to minimise the risks of infection in the event of sneezing by an infected person.

The African Press Agency has learnt that plans are underway by local organizations active in social awareness programs targeting the public in The Gambia to buy as many as possible and distribute them to anybody in the streets not equipped with one.

They will include market sellers, mobile traffic police teams, petrol station workers and hawkers who may not be able to afford D100 to acquire masks.

Despite the grim truth about the little know but perilous virus that has disrupted whole industries globally, some Gambians have not held back their sense of humour about face masks.

With almost everyone wearing them soon it would be difficult for Gambians to recognise each other in the streets, a commuter on one of the vehicles plying the Serekunda highway to the capital Banjul joked.

But can a face mask really protect people from contracting the virus?

Dr. William Schaffner, an expert on infectious disease at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told Live Science that regular surgical face masks may not be protective enough.

He said but a specialized mask known as an N95 respirator whose respirator is thicker than the surgical face mask, can protect the wearer from COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses including SARS.

While Dr. Schaffner said it may challenge their wearers to put them on for hours on end, Gambians resorting to them feel they dont really have a choice in their bid to keep COVID-19 at bay for now.

Meanwhile other precautions being taken by the government is suspending weekly open markets locally called loumoos, shutting down schools, meetings, seminars.

Surveillance teams have been deployed at all major border entry points, which still remain open.

The Ministry of Health said its personnel are poised to deal with eventual cases of the virus.

The main isolation centre in Banjul has been fitted with necessary tools to quarantine patients while the British-run Medical Research Council is being used to test cases for the virus.