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UN: Migrants in Somalia Know Little if Anything About COVID-19

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It is hard to imagine that there is anyone in the world who has not heard of the new coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.

But, migrants arriving in Somalia tell United Nations workers that they have never heard of the virus.

Observers for the U.N. migration agency have spoken with people at the border in Somalia, a country that has suffered years of conflict. The people are at the crossroads of one of the world's most dangerous migration paths. They cross the Red Sea with traffickers, pass through Yemen, which is torn by a civil war, and then hope to enter one of the rich Gulf countries.

The U.N. agency wants to know more about these people. So they ask questions about where they come from and where they are going. They are also asked if they have heard of COVID-19. In recent weeks, 51 percent said they had not.

Celeste Sanchez Bean leads a program with the U.N. agency based in Mogadishu. She told the Associated Press (AP), "The first time I saw this I was also very shocked."

The finding, which appeared in an agency report, shows how difficult it is to reach people everywhere with information about infectious disease.

She said the migrants are often young men from rural parts of nearby Ethiopia. Most have no education. The internet is not widely available. In the past, some were not even aware that there was a civil war going on in Yemen.

Bean is pleased that the number of those who do not know appears to be falling. When COVID-19 questions were first asked about 12 weeks ago, 88 percent had not heard of the disease.

When migrants who are questioned have not heard of the virus, workers explain how it spreads and what can be done to prevent infection. However, Bean is concerned because there is evidence that migrants are passing through areas where infections have been found.

"The migrants are putting themselves at risk," she said.

In this photo taken Wednesday, June 10, 2020, an internally-displaced Somali woman, right, is informed how to protect herself from the coronavirus, at the Weydow IDP camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. (Hamza Osman/International Organization for Migration (IOM)
In this photo taken Wednesday, June 10, 2020, an internally-displaced Somali woman, right, is informed how to protect herself from the coronavirus, at the Weydow IDP camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. (Hamza Osman/International Organization for Migration (IOM)

The migrants face other problems in cities like Bosaso. That is where boats leave for Yemen. The U.N. migration agency said local people blame the migrants for bringing the virus to their city.

However, it is not only migrants who have not heard of the coronavirus. The AP spoke to Fatima Moalin, who lives in southern Somalia. She said, "Muslims don't contract such a thing."

Others in rural Somalia, especially areas held by the Muslim extremist group al-Shabab, dismiss concerns about the virus. Officials blame limited internet and even extremists' restrictions on communications.

A recent study by the U.N. of displaced people in Somalia's separatist area of Somaliland found "very high" levels of misunderstanding about the coronavirus. Some people thought it was spread by mosquitos and that it causes diarrhea.

But most people knew about the disease outbreak. Information comes from radio broadcasts, word of mouth and message played on mobile phone services. All these methods are common in Africa.

Bean said, "Slowly, slowly the information is getting there."

But so too is the virus. Somalia, a country with one of the world's weakest health systems, now has thousands of cases.

I'm Mario Ritter, Jr.

Cara Anna reported this story for the Associate Press. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

Words in This Story

contract v. to become sick with a disease

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