We live in a world that is increasingly interconnected often defined as a global village. Largely thanks to the internet and the digital platforms that revolutionized the way humans communicate and share information instantly. Today, the world is battling the coronavirus pandemic, an infectious and contagious disease that has infected more than 3.5 million population while also killing more than 250 thousand as it spreads from country to another. The economic ramification caused by this pandemic is beyond measurable as markets and major businesses including the entire aviation industry collapsed. It will probably take years if not decades for the world to recover as we brace for the biggest economic recession in history. Schools, universities, hotels, restaurants, offices and many other public places remain closed as governments around the world adopt restrictive measures including full lockdown and curfews to flatten the curve.
On 16th March 2020, Somalia’s Ministry of Health confirmed the first case of COVID19 and on 8th April the Ministry announced the first COVID19 related death, 58 years old Somali national with no travel history. As of today, the number of cases confirmed in Somalia stands at 1,455 with 57 deaths. It is believed that the number could be much higher partially due to the limited testing and contact tracing capacity in the country coupled with the limited public awareness. But this is not the only pandemic we are facing, the coronavirus brought something called infodemic where misinformation and disinformation about the virus itself is thriving and spreading among societies.
Before the pandemic arrived in Somalia, people were too relaxed and reluctant to follow the W.H.O five guidelines. As matter of fact, large number of Somalis initially believed that Muslims and black people cannot contract the virus, that the virus cannot survive in hot weather areas, that it is kind of soldiers sent to fight world powers like China and other western powers. Later on when the first case was confirmed another piece of misinformation was widely shared on social media.
One of the myths was that consuming large amount of garlic and ginger as well as drinking lots of water can prevent you from being infected. In another video that went viral on YouTube, a local religious leader known as Sheikh Rusheeye who is based in Bosaso claimed that he can heal covid19 patients. “Bring me those infected with corona and I will heal them. shoot me if I fail to heal them.” he said in the clip. The Sheikh event went further to judge the faith of those Muslims who contract the virus. The clips is still circulating online resulting various reactions. All these misinformation and rumors are spreading during a national health emergency in the country where public health service is scarce. Infodemics creates confusion and distrust among people and in the context of Somalia it can hamper the fight against this invisible deadly disease.
Forum on Tackling Misinformation and Misconceptions
In light of this, Digital Shelter hosted online forum on “misinformation and misconceptions about coronavirus in Somalia” aimed at brainstorming ideas on how to tackle proliferation of false information about the virus among Somali communities. The forum brought together diverse panelists including:-
- Abdisalam Aato, a prominent award winning filmmaker and storyteller who is currently championing digital campaign known as WhatsApp Botka in Somalia creating awareness and educating people about the virus.
- Kalson Abdi: A freelance communication strategist and COVID19 survivors who, after her recovery, shared a powerful YouTube clip about her ordeal in fighting the disease for many days.
- Dr Yahye Shoole, a Somali doctor based in South Africa who is currently treating COVI19 patients at Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town.
- Moulid Hujale: an award winning refugee advocated and freelance journalists who writes for various media institutions including Aljazeera, The Guardian, TRT World. Moulid’s recent article published on Aljazeera highlights how the virus hit hard Somalis in UK.
Several Somali academics, health practitioners, researchers around the world have joined the forum including Abdinor Dahir, a researcher with TRT World based in Istanbul, Deeqa Odawaa from Stockholm University and Mr Nageeye, a postgraduate medical student in China who also shared how Somali students were surviving under strict lockdown limbo in different parts of China.
Panelists were asked several questions related to the misconceptions and misinformation about the virus among Somali communities and the reason behind this. It was unanimously noted that societal culture and attitude are considered to be main factors why the virus is spreading among Somalis at home and abroad. Panelists pointed out that traditionally, Somali people are close and attached to each other for economic reason or other family ties thus making the concept of social distancing very difficult. For instance, shared houses by families of more than 6 members is commonplace in Somalia and even in the diaspora.
Abdisalaam Ato specifically spoke about the denial attitude of the virus, “you have people suffering from all the symptoms of COVID19 yet insisting that it is just a bad flue or “Hargab Xun” without isolating themselves from the rest of their families hence spreading the virus in the process.”
Kalson spoke about the different outreach modalities of communication for various group of the society. “we should be visiting the boys while they are playing football inside their indoor stadium, we should be talking to those people gathering in restaurants and hotels for tea and warn them about how the pandemic can thrive in such gatherings” she said.
During his remarks, Moulid Hujale proposed that media professionals need to play their role but have to be trained first on providing awareness and disseminating information about the pandemic. “This is new phenomena for both local and international media outlets. But I think journalists including editors need some sort of capacity building on covering the news about covid19 while at the same raising public awareness in the process.”
Dr Yahye also highlighted need for coordinated and effective community outreach campaign across the nation by the federal government and federal state administration. “Fighting misinformation with the truth may seem to be very difficult in this digital age, but the states and the federal government need to harmonize comprehensive outreach and awareness messages in different dialects for wider dissemination.”
Abdinor Dahir spoke about how the virus is affecting Somalis living in Turkey and why its very important for Somalia to reach out to its strategic international partners to better respond to the pandemic. “I think it is time for Somalia to pull too many strings together and be prepared for this pandemic. The government should seek assistance from its strategic allies and other friendly states. Turkey is already sending medical equipment and other necessary materials such PPE, testing devices and that is a noble work.”
Deqa Odawaa from Stockholm University also mentioned the same pattern of the virus affecting Somali ethnic communities in Sweden largely due to the limited understanding and the conservative nature of the community. “It is very hard for some families to practice isolation and quarantine which are the first line of defense against the virus. You find Somali families living in overcrowded apartments and visiting their other family members frequently and that increase the rate of communal transmission”
Following are the recommendations that came out of the forum to tackle the misinformation and misconceptions on coronavirus.
- Creating mass public information campaign led by the national health institutions such as Ministry of Health and the national COVID19 task force which should be disseminated widely across the nation.
- Media institutions to join the fight against misinformation by doing some fact-checking, myth-busting, and sharing high-quality information sourced from the national health institutions and W.H.O
- A comprehensive training for media professionals on reporting and covering COVID19 news was also recommended since this is a whole new phenomena in journalisms.
- Radios are the most effective channels of reaching out to large audiences in Somalia and should be used as method of mass awareness campaigns.
- Distributing outreach messages in various dialects spoken in the country is very vital for easier understanding of the local communities in some regions of the country.
- Traditional and religious leaders who seem to be resisting the reality of this virus should be trained and included in the frontline fighters against myths and misinformation. Their engagement is crucial at this moment due to their influence in public opinions.
- Citizens to be informed that they should get information only from trusted sources such as Ministry of Health and W.H.O
- Publication of stories of COVID19 survivors so that they can share what it is like to be Covid-19 positive and how they dealt with it. This can positively reduce stigma while at the same time can inform the public about the reality of the virus.