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Rift Valley Institute

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Mogadishu in the time of COVID-19

This article was written by Abdirahman Edle Ali, Abdirahman Mustaf Mohamed, Jethro Norman, Karuti Kanyinga and Peter Albrecht. The authors are part of the Diaspora Humanitarianism in Complex Crises (D-Hum) research programme, a consortium made up of the Danish Institute for International Studies, Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, Rako Research and Communication Centre and Rift Valley Institute. This article was originally published on the Danish Institute for International Studies website.

Photo of Mogadishu by Peter Albrecht


Government response to COVID-19: rumour and fact in Mogadishu

Testing for COVID-19 in Somalia is limited, but speculations are rife about the number of infected. As one observer in Mogadishu explained: “The discussion at the moment is that the virus has spread across the city and that the government and Ministry of Health don’t actually know the scale of the spread.”

There is a sense that more people than usual are dying at the moment. “A lot of people were buried the day before yesterday,” one resident in Mogadishu noted on 7 April, “there were mass funerals, which raised the question of why all these people had suddenly died.” There is a widespread lack of confidence in the federal government’s ability to manage an outbreak in Mogadishu, and people are hesitant to go and see a doctor if they experience COVID-19 symptoms.

Nevertheless, the Ministry of Health has set up a laboratory in Mogadishu to test for the virus, and on 12 April 2020, reported 25 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the first of which was a 58-year old man with no travel history. The situation is more dire outside of the capital city. Whilst western media has focused on the supply of ventilators and personal protective equipment, the authorities in Jubbaland only manage to take the temperatures of the potentially infected.

To stymie the spread of COVID-19, the government has cancelled domestic flights, shut down schools and universities, and initiated public information campaigns. Yet it is questionable whether it can enforce its own directives, and early responses have been hamstrung by political fractures both within the cabinet and regionally. The Ministry of Health’s proposal to use Mogadishu’s stadium as a quarantine site was opposed by the Minister of Youth and Sports, and the ban of international flights to/from Somaliland was resisted by the government in Hargeisa.

The most successful measures against COVID-19 have come through Somalia’s privately run communications infrastructure, such as mobile service provider Hormuud. Public awareness messages have been disseminated through short radio features, songs, and infomercials. “Whenever you want to call someone,” we were told, “you are made aware that you should wash your hands,” an effective way to foster “awareness in the entire country.”

Authorities beyond the state: sheikhs, clan elders and Al-Shabaab

Sheikhs and clan elders take part in informing the population about COVID-19. For instance, one person underlined that “in terms of social distancing, hand washing, limiting movement, these are things that they sometimes say.” At the same time, he continued: “In Friday prayers all mosques are full, and you can imagine what will happen, if people are gathering in the mosque five times a day.”

Every institution has an idea about what should be done, but the ability to enforce is lacking. Mosques are full on Fridays. Markets are full every day, as are the tea houses, even though social gatherings in large groups are potential breeding grounds for infection. The government has not shut down these places.

Outside Mogadishu, the Islamic militant group Al-Shabab who control large parts of Somalia released a statement on COVID-19 in which they blamed the “foreign invaders” for spread of corona virus in Somalia. At the same time, the group has been observed to be enforcing the guidelines against infections.

One Crisis Among Many

Even with growing public awareness of COVID-19, and the virus’ imminent spread, Somalia faces a spectrum of challenges that for now overshadow the global pandemic’s impact.

Like in many other cities with large numbers of poor, self-isolation is not an option, and making a living is an everyday undertaking. This means a total lockdown, while being impossible to enforce by the government, is also undesirable. “Most Somalis are poor; they are struggling for daily life. The government can close public transport,” as was noted to us, but “the government cannot close the market.”

Furthermore, self-isolation is counter intuitive to a society that is built on collective action and relies on social capital to address everyday needs. This is particularly true during a time of illness, where it is the “culture to be around the person who is sick,” as one observer noted, “in the hospital, 4-5 people want to be around him or her, and if the hospital allows only one, the family will insist that 1-2 people more should be there – if refused, they will sit outside.”

As with other crises, it is likely that the spread of COVID-19 will render already precarious groups more vulnerable. For the more than half a million internally displaced persons (IDP) living squeezed into overcrowded sites in and around Mogadishu, personal hygiene and physical distancing are virtually impossible. As Somalia moves towards the end of the hot season (January-April), water is in high demand, and recurrent water shortages have hit IDPs especially hard. Twenty litres of water costs US$0.10c in IDP camps, and as one Mogadishu resident explained, “using such an expensive commodity for regular hand washing is a privilege that they cannot afford.”

What Can we learn from Mogadishu’s experience with Corona?

Somalia’s response to COVID-19 lays bare structural inequalities between the global North and South. But Somalia’s early experience with COVID-19 may also help us to nuance our understanding of what is a definitively global pandemic. In particular, we should be cautious of sweeping statements claiming that ‘the world is shutdown’, voices that herald COVID19 as the ‘great leveller’, or that generally assume the virus is epidemiologically indiscriminate.

In the absence of a functioning state and welfare system, Mogadishu has responded through an array of social institutions, including religious leaders and clan elders. One avenue for cautious optimism is the timely circulation of public health information through Somalia’s established communications infrastructure, which could become an effective asset in mitigating against the spread of COVID-19.

Ultimately, in Mogadishu everyday life continues as normal. In fact, because the threat from Al-Shabaab has perceptibly decreased in the last 5-6 months, some residents even report “feeling better and safer” in the time of COVID-19.

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