JOHANNESBURG (AP) – Half a year into the most memorable pandemic in decades, it’s hard to imagine anyone, anywhere, having never heard of the coronavirus. But dozens of migrants arriving in Somalia tell UN workers every day that they are unaware of COVID-19.
UN migration agency monitors interview people at the border in Somalia, a crossroads on one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes: across the Red Sea with human traffickers, war-ravaged Yemen, and wealthy Gulf states.
The questions for migrants are simple. Origin? Destination? Why are you going? But after the first infections in Somalia were confirmed, a new one was added: How many people in your group are aware of the coronavirus?
In the week ending June 20, just over half – 51% – of the 3,471 people tracked said they had never heard of COVID-19.
“The first time I saw this, I was also very shocked,” Celeste Sanchez Bean, a program manager at the UN agency in the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu, told The Associated Press.
The findings, little more than a line in the agency’s reports, recall the tremendous challenges of reaching everyone in the world with information about the pandemic, let alone wearing face masks.
The migrants are often young men from rural parts of neighboring Ethiopia. Most have no education, and some come from communities where Internet access is low, Bean said. She doubted anything had been lost during translation.
“We’ve been interviewing migrants for years,” she said.
In previous interviews, many migrants didn’t even know there was war in Yemen, the next step on their journey, she said.
With that in mind, “I’m not super shocked that the awareness of the coronavirus is still very low.”
Instead, she is convinced that the number of people unaware of COVID-19 has fallen from 88% at the outset in the past 12 weeks the question was asked.
Anyone unfamiliar with the coronavirus will receive a brief explanation of the pandemic, including how the virus is contracted and its symptoms and preventative measures.
What Bean is concerned about now are the findings of a new project that maps the migration route through Somalia, a country destabilized by decades of conflict, combining it with epidemiological data showing coronavirus infections.
“It is very clear to us that migrants travel through areas with confirmed cases,” she said. “If you have migrants with such unconsciousness, combined with this … I don’t mean to say it’s dangerous, but the migrants are putting themselves at risk.”
Possibly others too. Migrants are already facing stigma in cities like Bosaso, where boats are leaving for Yemen, because some residents blame them for bringing the virus, the UN migration agency said.
Now that the pandemic is harming the local economy, many migrants are unable to find the work that will allow them to save money for their onward journey, Bean said. “So they’re struggling more than ever before.”
Lack of awareness about COVID-19 is not limited to migrants.
“I’ve heard it sounds like this, but we don’t have it here,” Fatima Moalin, a resident of the city of Sakow in southern Somalia, told the AP when she was available by phone. “Muslims have no such thing.”
Others in rural Somalia, particularly in areas owned by the al-Qaida-linked extremist al-Shabab group, have rejected the virus. Somali authorities mention limited internet access, limited awareness campaigns and even extremists’ restrictions on communicating with the outside world.
A recent assessment by the UN Migration Service for displaced persons in the breakaway region of Somalia in Somalia found ‘very high’ misunderstandings, with some people mistaking COVID-19 for a mosquito-borne illness or thinking that a major symptom of the respiratory disease was diarrhea.
But most respondents were aware of the pandemic, thanks in large part to radio broadcasts, word of mouth, and messages played by mobile phone services while waiting for someone to pick up – a common approach in many countries in Africa.
“Slowly, slowly the information gets there,” said Bean.
The virus is too. Somalia, with one of the world’s weakest health systems, now has more than 2,800 cases.
Associated Press writer Abdi Guled in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.
Follow AP pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak
Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.