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Coronavirus threatens to halt Somalia’s resurgence

Somalia's education minster Abdullahi undergoes temperature test as he arrives at Mogadishu airport

EDITORIAL | When Dr. Fawziya Abikar Nor, the Somali Health Minister, announced on Monday in Mogadishu that a case of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) had been confirmed in the country, it may have only completed an anxious wait.

But that announcement could now create new anxiety: Somalia which has been on a positive trajectory lately on most fronts is being forced to take a pause.

This week, for example, Somali Minister for Air Transport and Airports Mr. Mohamed Abdullahi Omaar introduced a 15-day ban on international flights, giving exception only to humanitarian and medical emergency aircraft to land or take off from Somali territory.

There were more measures. Somalia, like the rest of Africa, restricted public gatherings, shut schools and urged people to wash hands.

By Thursday morning, Dr. Nor said there had been no further transmission of the virus. Neither was there any new imported case, she said.

Mamunur Rahman Malik, the World Health Organisation Country Representative to Somalia, urged people to practice prevention measures, rather than live in anxiety.

“Let’s fight this virus by spreading these messages,” he said referring to the simple steps of washing hands and following advice of authorities on public health.

“The world has fought and won a bigger health crisis than Covid-19. We need to prepare and not panic.”

For Somalia, if it goes on like that without further transmission, the country may just reopen for normal business in a fortnight. If it doesn’t, observers say Somalis should prepare to take two steps back and begin again.

The economy

Somalia, by continental standards, has been lucky so far, reporting just one case as neighbors Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania announced more. WHO says Africa now has 600 cases. That means the number for sub-Saharan Africa is nearly half that. 

with South Africa in the lead at 150 by Thursday night.

But it is the weakest economy among them all, given its decades-long insecurity challenges.

A World Bank bulletin says some eight million Somalis, or half the entire population, live in poverty. The country’s economic activities are mostly driven by agriculture and service provision. The former, the Bank says, has not recovered since the 2017 drought.

“The agriculture sector experienced near-total collapse with crop failures, a widespread shortage of water and pasture; and increased livestock mortality. Inflationary pressure increased in 2017 due to drought-driven by significant increases in crop prices,” the Bank says in the bulletin.

The latter, which mostly requires contacts between people is likely to take a hit after the Somali Prime Minister Hassan Khaire announced stricter measures on Tuesday, including a ban on public meetings.

But the bigger economic challenge will come this way: Most of the Covid-19 cases in Africa have been mostly imported from Europe, the US, and the United Arab Emirates. China, where the virus began in December have strangely imposed stricter quarantines, limiting exportation of the virus to Africa.

But in Somalia, the country also runs on the services of many expatriates, serving the UN, the African Union Mission in Somalia as well as foreign diplomats and expert contractors.

“These personnel travel in and out of the country frequently posing great public health risks, which are difficult to minimize,” argued Dr. Hodan Ali, a Family Nurse Practitioner, and Benadir Regional Administration Humanitarian and Durable Solutions Coordinator in Somalia.

Once the expatriates' travel is restricted to contain the virus, it creates a new problem: Their activities stall. Most Somalis rely on selling services to this community or even working for them. With the new virus, that means the business can’t continue.

A study publicized last week by the World Economic Forum, but conducted by pollster Ipsos shows that people in countries with reported cases were anxious about losing their jobs.

The report was based on the 12 countries that initially recorded cases, but with an interconnected globe today, the effects could be chilling. In fact, the UN trade and development agency (UNCTAD) said this week the world will lose $1 trillion to the virus, with poorer nations feeling the pinch more.

“Put simply, this is a case of the bigger nations sneezing, and the poorer ones catching a cold,” David Ayacko, an economist in Nairobi observed.

“Poorer nations rely on the richer ones for stability. Any shocks hit hard and our region in eastern Africa may not be spared either.”

In a blog in ‘Somali Public Agenda’ this week, Dr. Ali argued Somalia’s dilapidated health facilities which already can’t cope with existing problems could make things worse in case the virus spreads.

This week, Mr. Khaire announced a $5 million emergency package to help contain the virus. That is about 5 percent of what donors gave Somalia last year ($101 million) for development programs.

The disruption means Somalia has to divert funds meant for development to address an emergency.

“The social, political and economic impact of Covid-19 globally is massive as we are witnessing. The economic impact should be mitigated by encouraging stronger public and private partnerships to address immediate and long-term economic fallouts,” she argued.

By Thursday, Somalia had asked donors to help chip in and a meeting of partners on Wednesday had pledged to help support the health facilities. 

The Politics

Mr. Abdirashid Hashi, the Director of the Heritage Institute, a think-tank in Mogadishu summed up Somalia’s problems on Thursday as security, humanitarian, political and diplomatic. For the latter two, he argued the problem as in the uncertainty of having a government whose mandate is due to end. For the diplomacy, “the world has other priorities.”

In the wake of coronavirus, Hashi suggested there is a possibility of the disease affecting every aspect of life, including politics. But can players take heed?

“Due to the havoc [the] Coronavirus pandemic could cause in Somalia if it spreads amid war; and due to the absence of healthcare infrastructure, I would propose you enter one-year truce with the Somali government, though I would prefer ending of the war altogether,” he wrote in an open proposal to al-Shabaab.

Authorities in Somalia and the region have often said they can’t negotiate, so it is unclear how or whether al-Shabaab can respond to the call.

But Somalia plans to hold elections this year. But there have been certain issues it needed to sort out first. It passed the electoral laws and was to begin registering voters and pass a new constitution. The ban on public gatherings means political sensitization conferences have to be slowed and parliament cannot sit.

The virus arrived in Somalia as the UN conducted a Public Outreach Campaign on Constitutional review process Dusamareb, Galmudug State. Whether more could be held is another matter, given the panic among people now.

For the Federal Government of Somalia, the virus may have arrived at a crucial moment: It needed to reach out to federal states to iron out differences. This week, Puntland President Said Abdullahi Deni announced he might visit Mogadishu soon, signaling the rapprochement between his state and President Mohamed Farmaajo’s administration.

Yet the actual visit may be now be put on hold until after the virus is declared all-clear by the World Health Organisation.

Some analysts told Garowe Online that Farmaajo, facing resistance from federal states, had desired to have the elections delayed after all. With Coronavirus, it could offer a legal channel to that route.

“Article 53 section 2b says the election can be postponed if there is an epidemic. That is clear it is Coronavirus. So Farmajo can postpone the election without any obstacle,” Abdalla Ibrahim from the East African Centre for Research and Strategic Studies in Nairobi argued, referring to the new elections act.

“Farmajo had better use this chance rather than look for another way which is not legitimate,” he added.

Besides war and natural calamity, an epidemic could stop people from living normally, meaning they can’t be free to vote. But Somalia cannot invoke that clause yet.

Despite the coronavirus being declared pandemic, the actual words in the Somali law refer to an outbreak. The country cannot meet the definition yet as only one case has been confirmed.