By Nuru Ahmed
As wealthy countries race to distribute Covid-19 vaccines, Somalia remains a rare nation where citizens are skeptical about the pandemic. The country has not taken coronavirus seriously as other nations have done globally.
Somalia has an estimated population of around 15 million and has been described as Africa’s most culturally homogeneous country. Around 85% of its residents are ethnic Somalis, who have historically inhabited the country’s north.
Ethnic minorities are largely concentrated in the south. The official languages of Somalia are Somali and Arabic. Most people in the country are Muslims, majority being Sunni.
Somalia is located at the Horn of Africa, a nation torn apart with three decades of conflict. It is likely to be the last country to receive Covid-19 vaccines in Africa if any significant quantity arrives.
With part of the country still held by the al-Qaida-linked to al-Shabab extremist group, the risk of the virus becoming endemic in hard-to-reach areas is inevitable.
Abdirizak Yusuf Hirabeh, the Government’s Covid-19 incident Manager said: “Certainly our people don’t use any form of protective measures, neither masks nor social distancing.”
“If you move around the city of Mogadishu or countrywide, nobody even talks about it and yet infections are rising,” Hirabeh added.
“There is no real or practical investigation into the matter,” said Hirabeh, who is also the Director of the Martini hospital in Mogadishu. It is the largest hospital handling Covid-19 patients and had seven new patients the day Hirabeh spoke. He acknowledged that neither facilities nor equipment are adequate in Somalia to tackle the virus.
So far less than 27,000 coronavirus tests have been conducted in Somalia, a country with more than 15 million people. It is one of the lowest tests done in the world. About 4,800 cases have been confirmed with at least 130 deaths.
Some worry the virus will sink into the population as yet another poorly diagnosed but deadly fever.
For 45-year-old street beggar Hassan Mohamed Yusuf whose fear has turned into near-certainty. “In the beginning we saw this virus as just another form of flu,” he said. Then three of his young children died after having a cough and high fever. As residents of a makeshift camp for people displaced by conflict or drought, they had no access to coronavirus testing or proper care.
On the other hand Yusuf said, the virus hurt his efforts to find money to treat his family as “we could not get close enough” to people to beg.
Early in the pandemic, Somalia’s government did attempt some measures to limit the spread of the virus, closing all schools, shutting down all domestic and international flights. Mobile phones rang with messages about the virus.
But social distancing has long disappeared in the country’s streets, markets or restaurants. Some 30,000 people crowded into a stadium in Mogadishu for a regional football match with no face masks or other anti-virus measures in sight.
Mosques in the Muslim nation never faced restrictions, for fear of the reactions.
“Our religion taught us hundreds of years ago that we should wash our hands, faces and even legs five times every day and our women should take face veils as they’re often weaker. So that’s the whole prevention of the disease, if it really exists,” said Abdulkadir Sheikh Mohamud, an Imam in Mogadishu.
“I left the matter to Allah to protect us,” said Ahmed Abdulle Ali, a shop owner in the capital. He attributed the rise in coughing during prayers to the changing of seasons.
A more important protective factor is the relative youth of Somalia’s people, said Dr. Abdurahman Abdullahi Abdi Bilaal, who works in a clinic in the capital. More than 80% of the country’s population is under age 30.
“The virus is here, absolutely, but the resilience of people is owing to age,” he said. “It’s the lack of post-mortem investigations in the country that are allowing the true extent of the virus to go undetected,” he asserted.
The next challenge in Somalia is not simply obtaining Covid-19 vaccines but also persuading the population to accept them and the existence of corona virus.
“That will take time, just the same as what it took for our people to believe in the polio or measles vaccines,” a concerned Bilaal said.
Sarah Yusuf not her real name, a deployed police lady at Kismayuu says the Somali people are not scared about Covid-19 pandemic and they believe coronavirus does not exist in Somalia.
“People walk in the streets without putting on face masks, they greet each other, hug and do not practice any social distance while in the mosques. I am worried for the old people who mix with the youth while praying because they do not know Covid-19 is a deadly pandemic,” Sarah cautioned.
Hirabeh, in charge of Somalia’s virus response, agreed that “our people have little confidence in the vaccines,” saying that many Somalis hate the needles. He called for serious awareness campaigns to change minds.
The logistics of any Covid-19 vaccine rollout are another major concern. Hirabeh said Somalia is expecting the first vaccines in the first quarter of 2021, but he worries that the country has no way to handle a vaccine like the Pfizer one that requires being kept at a temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius.
“One that could be kept between minus 10 and minus 20 might suit the Third World like our country,” he noted.