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Coronavirus crisis

Somalis observed Eid at home. But in al Shabab-held towns, they gathered in their thousands

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Somalis across the country celebrated Eid-ul-fitr on Saturday, May 23, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

And as Covid-19 sweeps across the Horn of Africa nation, the government urged citizens to perform the Eid prayer at their homes. But it was a different scenario in areas under the control of al Shabab militants.

Despite the al Qaeda-linked group acknowledging the danger posed by Covid19, the disease caused by the novel Coronavirus, thousands of people gathered at public grounds in areas under its control  to celebrate the end of Ramadan, risking their lives and increasing the likelyhood of the spread of Coronavirus at a time when people across the world practice social distancing.

In Kunya Barrow, one of al Shabab-held towns in Lower Shabelle province, hundreds of worshippers gathered at Sayid Mohamed Hassan Square for celebrations.

And in Jilib, al Shabab headquarters in Middle Jubba province, thousands congregated and marked Eid-ul-fitr. Other towns under al Shabab control in central and Southern Somalia observed Eid in the public.

Worshippers during Eid prayers in Saakow, an al Shabab-held town in southern Somalia. 

After months in denial, on May 13, al Shabab held an extraordinary summit to discuss Covid-19 and the impact it has on the community, and established a seven-member task force to deal with a possible outbreak of the virus in areas under its control.

The task force, comprising of doctors, religious leaders and intellectuals, will coordinate the group’s preparedness, prevention and response to the threat of the disease and advise the al Shabab leadership.

“Considering the fact that Somalis are communal society, frequently visiting one another, and are connected, there is possibility that Covid-19 may reach areas that have not been affected,” read part of a press release from al Shabab political office.
Somalia has more than 1,600 Covid-19 cases, and 61 deaths. The first case was reported on March 16 when a Somali citizen who was returning home from China tested positive for the virus.
Somalia lacks essential equipment for the intensive care that Covid-19 patients need. However, Turkey has donated medical supplies to help the government deal with the pandemic.
If the virus spreads across the country, it would be hard to treat everyone, especially, those in rural areas where al Shabab controls and may prevent health workers from reaching those areas.

The al Qaeda-linked group controls swathes of land in central and Southern Somalia, and is fighting to overthrow the Somali government and wants to implement its own version of a strict Islamic law.

Al Shabab is known to bar aid and health workers from entering areas it controls, but considering its acknowledgment of the dangers of the pandemic, it may allow a few health workers in.

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Coronavirus crisis

Al Shabab has been ignoring Coronavirus threats, now it is determined to fight it

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Somali workers in protective suits and civilians carry the body of a man suspected to have died of the coronavirus disease, for burial in Madina district outside of Mogadishu. REUTERS
   

For months, Somalia’s al Shabab group has been ignoring the threats posed by the novel coronavirus as the virus continued to spread across the Horn of Africa nation.

In March, the group held its first meeting on Covid-19, but didn’t take the disease seriously. In the meeting hall, attendees, hundreds of them, didn’t consider the global standard of practicing social-distancing where people keep at least two meters apart from each other to limit the spread of the virus.

It said the coronavirus crisis was a ‘blessing in disguise’ for the group.

The Coronavirus could limit military operations, especially the US drone attacks on al Shabab targets and anti-terror summits around the world allowing al Shabab to regroup, accordimg to a report by Somali Memo, a mouth-piece for al Shabab.

However, the US has stepped up its air campaign against al Shabab in the first three months of this year, targeting the group 33 times in 2020.

In the March meeting, al Shabab termed the coronavirus as ‘God’ s wrath to punish non-Muslims.

But on Wednesday, May 13, al Shabab held an extraordinary summit to discuss Covid-19 and the impact it has on the community, and established a seven-member task force to deal with a possible outbreak of the virus in areas under its control.

The task force, comprising of doctors, religious leaders and intellectuals, will coordinate the group’s preparedness, prevention and response to the threat of the disease and advise the al Shabab leadership.

“Considering the fact that Somalis are communal society, frequently visiting one another, and are connected, there is possibility that Covid-19 may reach areas that have not been affected,” read part of a press release from al Shabab political office.

Somalia has more than 1,219 Covid-19 cases, and 52 deaths. The first case was reported on March 16 when a Somali citizen who was returning home from China tested positive for the virus. Somalia lacks essential equipment for the intensive care that Covid-19 patients need. However, Turkey has donated medical supplies to help the government deal with the pandemic.

If the virus spreads across the country, it would be hard to treat everyone, especially, those in rural areas where al Shabab controls and may prevent health workers from reaching those areas.

The al Qaeda-linked group controls swathes of land in central and Southern Somalia, and is fighting to overthrow the Somali government and wants to implement its own version of a strict Islamic law.

Al Shabab is known to bar aid and health workers from entering areas it controls, but considering its acknowledgment of the dangers of the pandemic, it may allow a few health workers in.

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Coronavirus crisis

In Somalia, Coronavirus is spreading under the radar

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Just how much has the coronavirus spread in Somalia?

So far, 772 people have been confirmed officially as having contracted Covid-19, the disease caused by the Coronavirus, and 32 people have died of the virus.

The novel coronavirus is spreading quickly in Somalia, with almost 50 percent, sometimes more, of tests done turning to be positive.

Testing isn’t available to everyone, as the government can’t conduct mass testing. So, the numbers don’t accurately reflect the extent of transmission.

“We have a limited capacity to record all deaths. We are unable to reach every home. When a patient dies, relatives hire a private ambulance or a truck and they bury the body. People are reluctant to share the information and therefore we are missing numbers,” Dr Mohamed Ali, a health officer who leads the Covid-19 response team at Mogadishu’s Martini hospital, told The Guardian.

The country operates three laboratories capable of conducting Covid-19 tests; one in Garowe in Puntland state in the northeast, another in Hargeisa in Somaliland, a break-away region in the northwest, and a national lab in Mogadishu.

According to the mayor of Mogadishu, Omar Filish, at least 500 people may have died of Covid-19 in the last two weeks alone. The mayor said the city records between 19 and 49 deaths related to the disease daily.

There could also be undetected cases, patients with coronavirus-like symptoms visiting hospitals, and not getting tested and getting treatment for other diseases.

Now the government says it recognises all recent deaths as Coronavirus-related.

The virus is transmitted locally, meaning people with no history of travel or contact with those who have been abroad are contracting the virus, and are spreading it.

To curb the spread of Covid-19, the government closed schools, introduced a night-time curfew and shut down mosques, but some worshippers defy authorities and attend prayers in mosques, go to weddings and funerals, interacting with each other, making social-distancing a difficult task, thus increasing the risk of the virus spreading further.

Somalia recorded its first case on March 16, 2020. There is great concern about the possibility of a large-scale outbreak due to lack of healthcare infrastructure, and should there be an breakout, it would be difficult for medics and humanitarian agencies to reach areas under al Shabab, which has a history of disrupting humanitarian work.

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Coronavirus crisis

Somalia has been battling al Shabab. Then coronavirus arrived.

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A doctor and a nurse prepare a ward for COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: REUTERS
   

Somalia is struggling to defeat al Shabab, an al Qaeda-linked group that wants to overthrow the government in Mogadishu and implement its own version of Islamic law. Since 2006, the government has been fighting this group which continues to wreak havoc across the country.

Then on March 16, an invincible and deadly virus arrived. The government recorded the first case of the novel coronavirus in the country. Since then, cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continue to surge.

On Monday, April 20, health minister, Fawziya Abikar, announced 73 new cases, the single largest increase so far. The country now has 286 confirmed cases and 14 deaths. On Tuesday, April 21, six people succumbed to the virus, the highest number of fatalities in a single day.

Somalia is not conducting mass tests, it doesn’t have the capability, it tests around 100 people daily, but more than 50 percent turn to be positive. The country could be heading for a disaster if numbers continue to grow, as they show.

The government has taken some measures to curb the spread of Covid-19; setting up a call centre for tracking and reporting of cases, enforced a night curfew, closed mosques, schools and restaurants.

Despite these, Mogadishu, the country’s calital, has become the epicenter of the disease with 128 cases. The city is under night curfew, but during the day, markets and other places are overcrowded, making it difficult for people to practice social-distancing.

The virus is now transmitted locally, meaning people with no history of travel or contact with those who have been abroad are contracting the virus, and are spreading it.

Between March 20 and 25, more than 100 Shabab officials, members, and clan elders attended an event held in an unknown area to discuss a range of issues including the coronavirus itself.

Al Shabab acknowledged the danger posed by the virus, but unlike the Afghan Taliban, it did not elaborate its plans to contain it and whether it will allow medical workers to operate in areas under its control should the virus break there. The group sees the disease came as a result of ‘God’s wrath; to punish non-Muslims and test Muslims.’

Somalia’s healthcare infrastructure is weak as a result of three decades of conflict. According to Global Health Security Index, it is ranked 194th out of 195. There is shortage of ICU beds available, and no single ventilator needed to provide life support to critically ill Covid-19 patients.

Turkey has donated testing kits and other medical equipment, yet only one or two laboratories are equipped with machines that can process test samples.

Both government and al Shabab forces  continue fighting in central and southern regions, capturing and recapturing towns. Both need to pause fighting immediately to concentrate on the fight against Covid-19, and al Shabab should give aid and medical workers access to areas it controls. The group has a history of killing and abducting aid workers operating in its areas. This time, al Shabab should act differently.

Very few countries were prepared to deal with this global pandemic. And Somalia was not one of them. It’s politics and security make it even less prepared for any kind of crisis.

“Somalia has never faced a threat as existential as coronavirus; neither do we have the means to adequately counter the pandemic nor do we have capacity to overcome its devastating economic impact, particularly when half of citizens needed external support to survive,” says Abdirashid Hashi, director of Heritage Institute, a think-tank based in Mogadishu.

Somalia’s rural dwellers and its pastoral communities do not know much about coronavirus, some may not even heard of it. Lack of information on Covid-19 could be catastrophic.

Although radio is being used to educate the masses on Covid-19, some in rural areas mistake the coronavirus as the normal flu, and not take the necessary precautions to curb the spread of the virus. The government needs to employ local influencers and elders and opinion leaders to talk to people at the grassroots level.

Somalia recently cleared its arrears with the International Development Association and will benefit from the World Bank Group’s $14 billion global package of fast-track financing to assist countries in their efforts to to prevent, detect and respond to Covid-19.

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