By Maryan Dualle, M.P.H.
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases are rapidly increasing in Somalia, in little over two weeks (4/09-4/27) confirmed cases jumped from 12 to 480 cases, and lives lost went from zero to 26 death (AUN) in the same time. The high confirmed cases among the tested individuals indicate high community spread, particularly in Mogadishu, which could be the epicenter of the outbreak in Somalia if aggressive measures are not implemented as soon as possible.
Thus far, only limiting human interactions (stay home, business closures, social distancing, etc.) and hygiene seem to minimize the spread of this disease. Somali communities around the world, particularly those in Somalia are at great risk for contracting and dying from COVID-19 due to complex environmental (country health system), socioeconomic, cultural behaviors, religious beliefs, and pre-existing conditions (malnutrition, anemia, respiratory illnesses, hypertension, diabetes, etc.). Mitigation initiatives implemented by the Federal Government and the Federal Member States are being hindered by livelihood challenges (e.g. overcrowded living space and poverty); beautiful cultural behaviors such as socializing and sharing food with, family, friends and neighbors, and above all a strong faith in Allah (SWT) and his will.
More than the environmental and socioeconomic difficulties, Somali people’s best cultural attributes and misconceptions of their beautiful faith could facilitate COVID-19 spread in the country. In the last three months, I have talked to thousands of Somali people around the world, in different age groups, education levels, professional backgrounds and different genders about the Coronavirus risk and initially, most of them said “ I believe in Allah and what meant to happen will happen, I trust Allah, I am not worried” or something similar, which led me to rethink the COVID-19 awareness campaign and made me wholeheartedly belief that Somali religious leaders will make or break the COVID-19 mitigation strategies in Somalia.
The government’s notable effort to put in place mitigation measures (e.g. stay home, business closures, social distancing, curfew, etc.) to minimize COVID-19 spread is falling short due to lack of community buy-in and limited government capacity to enforce the measures. To this end, it is highly unlikely that the Somali people will try their best to implement government and health expert recommendations until they truly understand and appreciate the risk of COVID-19. Not to mention, how the arrival of the holy month of Ramadan, a month of mass giving (feeding the poor), gathering and worshipping will further impact the implementation of the COVID-19 mitigation measures. It is with that experience and understanding that I encourage all levels of the Somali government to empower and support the religious leaders to be the face of the COVID-19 awareness campaign in the country.
This is not a new concept, rather it is a basic public health principle to engage trustworthy figures of target communities and to engage them in a participatory approach that encourages them to lead community needs assessment, priority setting, and implementation of interventions. Similarly, the Ministry of Health and its partners must understand the importance of trusted religious leaders in the fight against COVID-19. While the Federal and Member States might not have a police station in every city, town, or village, there is a Masjid with Imam and mega microphone in every corner of Somalia. This presents an opportunity to leverage trusted, accessible, widespread, and readily available infrastructure around the country. When Somali Culimaa (religious leaders) fully understand what COVID-19 is and its potential harm to the community, they will be able to debunk a lot of the religious rhetoric, fallacies, myths, and excuses. Therefore, adding a multi-level religious leaders’ community engagement and outreach on top of all the community awareness activities that are already being implemented by the COVID-19 taskforce, partners and local governments will improve community acceptance and understanding of COVID-19 threat. In turn this will lead community members to better adhere to government orders and recommendations.
This multi-level approach should include religious leaders leading by example and implementing mitigation measures such as stopping mass prayer, COVID-19 task force representation, daily national and regional community messaging during MoH COVID-19 updates, which should be disseminated through most watch/listen communication channels (e.g. BBC, VOA, local radios and TVs) in the country and local ministries of health working with village-level Masjids to broadcast local COVID-19 update and timely awareness information.
There is no time, as evident by the daily new cases in the country, which are only the tip of the iceberg, since only the very ill are being tested and most of the tested cases are positive. Not to mention how this disease spread like a wildfire in the most developed countries in the world with the best health systems and the damages it caused. Every da, that the leaders do not act holistically could mean thousands of lives lost. I hope we can all put our differences aside and unite, collaborate, coordinate, and due the best we can to save lives and livelihood.
May Allah protect us from this evil disease and guide us on the right path.
Maryan Dualle, M.P.H.
Email: [email protected]
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