By: Basidia M Drammeh

First and foremost, I would like to extend my heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families who have lost their loved ones due to Acute Kidney Injury (AKI) as a result of consuming contaminated drugs imported from India.

These are challenging times for bereaved parents. These are devastating moments for every Gambian, regardless of our religious, political, ethnic and tribal affiliations. The loss of 69 innocent, young souls and counting is a colossal national calamity and an appalling human tragedy by all accounts. The entire nation is in a state of mourning.

This unprecedented incident laid bare the lack of leadership in crisis management. The government has been mute on this issue since the preliminary investigation, where the health authorities revealed that it was investigating the death of 28 children of kidney failure., urging hospitals to stop using syrup-based paracetamol medication. The storm blew up after the World Health Organization issued an alert on four medicines made by Delhi-based Maiden Pharmaceuticals. The WHO revealed that it had received a report from Gambia’s health authorities that at least 66 children have died due to the consumption of such drugs, unleashing public outcry as the news made headlines worldwide. The citizenry felt they were kept in the dark due to a lack of transparency.

With pressure mounting, President Adama Barrow took to the airwaves to engage his compatriots about the tragedy. However, the speech fell short of soothing the outrage, with critics panning the president for stating that the death of 66 children is not much different from similar cases before. The health minister Ahmadou Samateh had to make an apology for that phrase in his press conference the following day as a damage control measure. Other critics have also argued that the speech should have been delivered in our indigenous languages because the Gambian leader fluently and flawlessly speaks four of them.

The people are angry because pharmaceutical companies are allowed to export substandard drugs to the Gambia with the potential to endanger lives. According to Hindustan Times, the vice president of the Standing National Committee on Medicines & Health Care Products, Dr. YK Gupta, on Saturday dismissed the fears about the cough syrups by Maiden Pharmaceuticals company that resulted in the deaths of 66 children in the Gambia and said that that the licence for the drug was for export only, adding that Indian cough syrups “don’t have this possibility.”  The statement clearly shows that the medications were meant for the Gambia and the like; not India, where they originated. Isn’t that sad?

The incident should prompt the authorities to review Gambia’s foreign policy to ensure that our interests are equally safeguarded. The assistance we receive from countries must not prevent us from challenging them on issues affecting our lives and sovereignty. After all, Gambia also benefits India. How many Indians are doing business in the Gambia?

To ensure accountability, all those found wanting in this tragic incident must be brought to book to prevent future recurrence. There must be no sacred cows and no stone should be left unturned.

Meanwhile, there are growing calls for the Health Minister to resign following this tragic incident. I want to believe that Minister Samateh is a well-educated and hardworking person; however, I agree that he should quit on moral grounds, though he might not be personally responsible.

The incident has opened a nationwide conversation about the healthcare delivery system in the Gambia, particularly around the country’s lack of labs to test drugs and food. The Gambia allocates a considerable portion of its budget to health and receives significant funds from development partners to revamp the health sector. Therefore, I see no reason why the sector cannot be overhauled to save lives in that country. Corruption must be fought tooth and nail to make it happen.

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