COVID-19 In-depth Analysis

COVID-19, Somalia and the United Nations

Like so many others around the world at the start of this year, I and members of the UN family watched with alarm the growing spread and impact of COVID-19 in Somalia and elsewhere in the world. Our biggest worry was the potential for the pandemic to spiral out of control. Somalia is rebuilding after three decades of conflict, protracted crises and repeated humanitarian emergencies. Continued insecurity makes parts of the country inaccessible to humanitarian workers.

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Photo: UNSOM Somalia
Photo: UNSOM Somalia

On 16 March, Somalia confirmed its first COVID-19 patient in Mogadishu. We had already begun preparing for this expected eventuality. In the preceding weeks, I had initiated the UN’s Crisis Management procedures and assembled an executive team composed of senior leadership and experts from our medical, logistics, personnel and communications teams. Alongside this, the UN agencies had already begun to organise the UN’s support to the Somali government. This preparation was vital as it meant the full range of UN resources was at the ready.

Our biggest worry was the potential for the pandemic to spiral out of control. Somalia is rebuilding after three decades of conflict, protracted crises and repeated humanitarian emergencies @UNSomalia

Some seven months later, WHO has reported a total of 3,745 confirmed cases in Somalia with, sadly, 99 confirmed deaths.

At the end of May, the national positivity rate (the number of samples that are positive for coronavirus) was above 50 per cent. Since then, Somalia’s epidemic has been slowing down. Today, positivity rates are now only 1-2 per cent. This is welcome news, but not a reason to let our guard down. While we hope these low numbers are broadly reflective of the reality, we are alert both to limitations of data and to the possibility of a future surge in cases. Despite these relatively low figures, there is no doubt that COVID-19 has undermined health, economic and development gains in Somalia.

Economic challenges

In early 2020, Somalia had made commendable progress on the economic front. In March, it reached the decision point under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, which turned out to be crucial to Somalia’s ability to secure funding to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. The normalization of relations re-opened access to new resources: the World Bank’s $137.5 million International Development Association grant in May will help the areas hardest hit by the overlapping crises of COVID-19, floods and desert locusts.

This economic support is needed because, as a result of the global pandemic, Somalia’s gross domestic product is expected to decline by 1.5 per cent this year. Though a relatively modest contraction compared with some countries, the previously forecast growth rate of 3.2 per cent would have only just kept pace with a 2.8 per cent population growth rate in a country where 70 per cent of people are poor

The virus has also affected remittances from diaspora communities – a crucial economic element as they provide an essential lifeline for families, and at $1.3-$2 billion, make up just under one third of the country’s GDP. At the onset of COVID-19, remittances fell alarmingly but have since stabilized. Together with partners, the UN is working to address remittance bottlenecks.

Humanitarian challenges 

The year 2020 began with high humanitarian needs: 2.6 million people were already displaced, many living in densely populated conditions with limited possibility of physical distancing or access to hygiene and sanitation. This year, floods forced 630,000 people to leave their homes and – combined with a one-in-a-generation locust infestation – damaged over 200,000 hectares of land. The upcoming rains are expected to be below average, and next year’s drought conditions are predicted again.

The overall response to these challenges has been complicated by COVID-19 itself, as well as a worrying upsurge in Al-Shabaab attacks. It’s been harder to deploy humanitarian workers, more difficult to source planes, pilots and other supplies and equipment, and the funding environment is more challenging. Nevertheless, the UN has continued to support the government’s efforts.

The pandemic’s impact has been felt in other areas where we support efforts to improve Somalis’ health. For example, WHO and UNICEF raised the alarm about “plummeting routine immunization rates in children” due to COVID-19, although I am happy to note the Ministry of Health’s delayed polio and measles vaccination campaigns restarted at the end of August and has already reached some 500,000 children, with more planned. 

UN external response 

I take heart from the UN’s robust response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Somalia. With WHO spearheading efforts, we were able to help Somali authorities prepare for the prevention and early detection of cases and the management of suspected and confirmed cases.

Working with partners, the UN helped Somalia deploy 73 well-trained rapid response teams, including more than 3,300 community health workers in 49 districts across the country, for early case detection and contact tracing. These frontline health workers have visited more than 1.5 million households over the last six months, reaching approximately six million of Somalia’s total population of 15 million people – contributing significantly to reducing transmission and slowing the virus’ spread. 

We supported a scaling-up the country’s response capacity. There are now 18 isolation centres equipped with ventilators, oxygen concentrators, intensive care unit beds and other material. In September, newly-expanded testing teams reached thousands of people in normally inaccessible districts.

Overall, to ensure an integrated UN response, under the leadership of the Deputy SRSG Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator, we launched the COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan (CPRP) in April. One of the earliest UN plans in the world to integrate a socio-economic component, it responded to the government’s own economic concerns, and set out the immediate humanitarian requirements and health priorities.

The CPRP – updated in August with a new target of $527 million for meeting COVID-19 needs – describes the urgent response requirements from the Shock Responsive Safety Net programmes, to expanding WFP’s home delivery service (eShop), and the awareness-raising campaign ‘Clerics vs. COVID-19’.

But we are by no means ‘out of the woods’ yet – as of 7 October, only 30 per cent of the most urgent humanitarian components had been funded.

UN’s internal response 

Alongside the rapid programmatic response, the UN’s response to COVID-19 in Somalia also had an internal dimension.

In March, we implemented risk management measures to reduce our staff’s exposure to COVID-19 and improve in-mission treatment capacities. National staff members began working from home in March and, since then, about two-thirds of international staff have continued working remotely from abroad. Meanwhile, we scaled up our Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) stocks, medical facilities, and social distancing protocols to keep safe the staff remaining in Somalia.

Regardless of the constraints the pandemic placed upon the UN family, we are committed to deliver our mandates and support the Somali government and people in responding to the virus and national priorities.

James Swan, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia

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