Swift Action in the Backdrop of Insecurity and Election Uncertainty
On March 16, after FGS Health Minister Fawziya Abikar announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Somalia, the spread was rapid. The Somali authorities understood they were unequipped to deal with the outbreak, which prompted State and Federal government to produce needs assessments before the first confirmed case was reported. The impact of COVID-19 on Somalia was projected to be grave because public health facilities lacked capacity, government revenue decreased due to restrictions, and remittances, a vital lifeline for Somalis were dwindling due to the pandemic’s global impact.
A resurgence of the #COVID19 pandemic in Somalia, coinciding with a fiercely contested election, may cause a crisis in the middle of a political transition @NAISomaliaTweet
After the first confirmed case, Somali leaders acted swiftly by instituting curfews and travel bans. The FGS Ministry of Health along with its regional counterparts engaged the public with necessary information on quarantine, social distancing and mask wearing. Donations from the FG were distributed throughout the regions. This led to an increase in goodwill among the parties – a much-needed respite from the fractious nature of Somali politics. The concerted response and the coordination between the federal and state governments was pertinent, as Somalia had reported higher confirmed cases and death tolls by the end of April than Ethiopia and Kenya combined. A rush to identify and equip quarantine centres, school closures and instituting toll-free hotlines were carried out by Somali authorities in March. The initial successful response was aided by international commitment to help Somalia fight the pandemic, the oral nature of Somali society and the ubiquity of cell phones in the country. Even Al Shabaab took the pandemic seriously, setting up a COVID-19 centre in its stronghold in Jilib, despite the group coordinating several attacks on government officials throughout the outbreak. Two governors in Puntland state were assassinated in separate incidents only weeks apart. But, overall there was a 17% decrease in fatalities from March-September 2019, compared to March-September 2020. Furthermore, there was a peace agreement in the conflict-prone Mudug region, led by the community and government authorities from both Puntland and Galmudug state.
Distraction, Dissonance or Downplaying COVID-19
The concerted efforts were successful at educating and informing the public, but robust government directed action to stem the pandemic, has not proven sustainable. The pandemic’s spread, coinciding with the Holy month of Ramadan coupled with weak government capacity to relieve its citizens of the economic hardships that are symptomatic of heavy lockdown procedures, proved too much to sustain globally adopted practices, that were only instituted in pockets of Somalia. The government was cognizant that its revenue would suffer as Eid season, a significant stimulus to the local economy, was quickly approaching, and therefore it announced that it would ease lockdown restrictions. By May, it lifted the curfew procedures it had instituted on businesses.
International travel was still banned and schools were closed but the attitudes and behaviours of politicians and citizens faltered. Talk of aid mismanagement and misappropriation of funds were levied on government officials. Predatory business practices also saw a spike as the costs for goods inflated due to rumours of imports slowing down. A recent study indicated that 60% of respondents interviewed from Mogadishu felt that the business community were making things worse during COVID-19. But instead of adequately addressing public concern the political process eclipsed these issues. The impending Federal elections scheduled for February 2021 had created a point of contention in Federal/Regional relations. Uncertainty as to what the modality of this election was, led to a series of high-level political meetings as pressure mounted. The meetings occurring in Dhusamareeb and Mogadishu finally paved the way for an electoral modality that was agreed upon after months of deliberations. This was a welcome compromise as election uncertainty has in the past contributed to the breakdown of social cohesion that has led to communal conflict and/or political violence. But a major feature that stood out during these meetings was photos of leaders and their delegations in serried ranks with no regard for social distancing measures and masks, despite their ministries continuing to advocate the measures. Avid political pundits were quick to point out the lack of adherence at the leadership level to health guidelines.
Need for Exigency and Societal Resilience
As leaders largely abandoned the guidelines, the public soon followed suit, as the pandemic was perceived as largely blowing over. However, during this period there was an international travel ban and Somalis were fortunate to have cultural elements that worked in their favour. Relatively low levels of urbanization and 60% of the population being nomadic and moving around periodically in small family groups, rarely frequenting urban areas may have acted as a form of social distancing. But Somalia has lifted the travel ban and there has been an influx of visitors, while Somali authorities still struggle to implement rigorous contract tracing.
Lately there have been consistent spikes in the number of positive cases being reported indicating that the second wave is in progress. The current disposition of leaders and their overriding focus on elections may result in serious implications in the coming months. A resurgence of the pandemic coinciding with a fiercely contested election may cause a crisis in the middle of a political transition. This time, the Somali public may not be inclined to take the precautions seriously as leaders were quick to abandon them in the past. But this is an opportunity for civil society to fill in the void that has been left by authorities.
When COVID-19 first broke out it was the community that acted, as hand-washing bays were constructed by local technicians, Somali tailors made masks, IT professionals created databases for authorities and universities developed hand sanitizers from locally sourced materials. The innovation executed by Somalis was a critical showcasing of resilience, which was fuelled by the impending crisis. Years of war, instability, natural disasters coupled with weak government, has bred in the populace this resilience and self-reliance and increased the bonds of clan and family ties to cope with shocks. But if the threat of the pandemic is depreciated, the need to problem-solve decreases which is counterintuitive to the preparation Somalia needs to be doing.
Somalia is entering a tumultuous period as a divisive election looms, the impending rainy season may witness the resurgence of locusts and flooding while a second wave of the pandemic is approaching. The Somali people need to harness the resilience they possess going forward. Political leadership will have to focus on ensuring that the political transition occurs while managing crises together with the states, and protecting the public from negligence, corruption and predatory practices. Civil society will need to foster innovation and continue avidly conducting awareness. A concerted and sustained effort all around is required as Somalia enters a difficult period.
Yusuf Mussa, Executive Director, New Access International (NAI) Somalia