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Somali Views in the Early Days of COVID-19: A Rapid Diagnostic

Somali Views in the Early Days of COVID-19: A Rapid Diagnostic

"Health and behavioural change communication...needs to be highly context relevant: free of jargon, empathetic, in local language and speech forms, and tailored to local socio-cultural identities and norm-change models. It has to start with listening to Somalis."

Communication Strategies: 

Launched in early 2019, Imaqal is premised on a theory of change that prioritises how media can shift perceptions of social norms by amplifying positive narratives in social and discursive settings. It consists of a radio magazine, aired weekly nationwide, and two seasons of radio drama. Audiences interact with the shows by responding to open-ended questions posed on air via SMS (text messaging) to a free shortcode. Besides a large national radio listenership, Imaqal has engaged an audience of over 50,000 people. This followership is skewed towards urban/internally displaced person (IDP)/youth segments of the population and has a strong representation of women - all of whom are key groups of concern with COVID-19 in the Somali context.

The diagnostic asked the existing cohort of Imaqal followers a question via SMS around their thoughts and questions on COVID19. Over the course of a weekend, April 3-5 2020, AVF sent this message: "Dear Imaqal Listener, your voice is important for the response to COVID19. What are your thoughts on Coronavirus?" In reply to this and additional questions, AVF heard from over 7,747 Somalis from South Central and Puntland, 40% of whom were recently displaced. Within 4 days, a team of Somali-speaking researchers analysed over 15,000 SMS responses. Some highlights:

  • Respondents fall into 2 broad camps: Those invoking religious hope, practice, and guidance as the right way forward (38.7%), and those invoking community action aligned to expert/government advice with a "call for right practice" (34.1%).
  • The religion frame grows more salient with increasing age and splits evenly between (passive) fate/hope/trust in Allah and (active) devoutness, prayer, offering. Younger age groups (notably females) are more likely to advocate for following expert/government advice on right practices.
  • Over 1 in 10 respondents expressed thoughts on COVID-19 that involve rumour, stigma, or misinformation (12.2%). Over 75% of these respondents expressed negative stigma: hostility, anger, or resentment. A message denying coronavirus was over twice as likely to come from a male than a female.
  • Those recently displaced were significantly more likely to express such thoughts than those who were not. In Banadir (Mogadishu area), the recently displaced were twice as likely as host community respondents to express rumour, stigma, or misinformation.
  • Rumour, stigma or misinformation were also more likely from respondents from more insecure areas (due to the Al-Shabaab threat), such as Bay and Lower Juba, than from Banadir.

With this information (see also data shared in these webinar slides [PDF]), AVF and other organisations in Somalia are formulating a COVID-19 response that includes: working with and through religion as the dominant community framing of COVID-19, leveraging strong community solidarity around "right practice" (especially through youth - notably, female youth), and deploying empathetic and engaging content, using accessible, trusted, and meaningful communication channels.

Findings and recommendations (see also Key Points, below) have been shared with Somalia's inter-agency Risk Communication and Community Engagement (RCCE) task force and through 2 webinars with practitioners and policymakers (watch one of them, below).

Development Issues: 


Key Points: 

On March 16 2020, Somalia recorded its first case of coronavirus. By mid-April 2020, there were over 200 cases and mostly local transmission. AVF reports that health capacity is poor nationwide but especially in urban settings, with high numbers of IDPs living in cramped conditions and with pre-existing levels of risk to health and wellbeing. In such a context, prevention is crucial, and it requires mobilising collective and community action this is geared toward helping the most vulnerable. Here, RCCE are vital, but challenges such as socio-cultural and religious beliefs may distort the nature of the threat (e.g., beliefs among some that they are "immune" because they believe in God). Given longstanding upheaval and insecurity, there is also risk of spread of misinformation about the virus that can aggravate public anxieties. Furthermore, social distancing measures need to make sense amidst dense and precarious urban settings and in a highly communal society. During Ramadan, purist public health messaging around distancing is also likely to backfire.

Some recommendations from the research for a COVID-19 RCCE response in Somalia:

  • Understand what messaging sheikhs and other religious leaders are giving around COVID-19 as a crucial starting point - there is no blank slate for COVID-19 RCCE messaging. A "public health first" framing is misaligned with primary influences on people's lives.
  • Work with religion a trusted source of authority, guidance, and reassurance in times of crisis. If programming does not approach from this perspective - worse, if it is at loggerheads with this worldview - it is liable to fail or backfire.
  • Anticipate/address sensitivities around curtailing religious gatherings, especially during Ramadan.
  • Be aware that where authorities/agencies bypass the primacy of religious authority, others are liable to step in, instrumentalising hostility, anger, and resentment. (This is especially a concern with vulnerable populations in Bay, Lower Juba, and Banadir.)
  • Mitigate significant stigma - notably, hostility/anger towards COVID-19 and outsiders/non-believers/harbingers - being aware that rumour/stigma/misinformation is compounded amongst IDPs and conflict-affected communities.
  • Leverage frames that see women as the "backbone" of society and youth as the "pillar" of society to galvanise influencers for a collective response. (The strong "we" element in calling for right practice coheres with AVF's previous work: Somalis repeatedly emphasise community solidarity and mobilisation as solutions to humanitarian problems.)
  • Tackle rumour and misinformation around virus source and treatment - dengue, common cold and measles, traditional medicines - where it compounds negative practices, but this is not of the highest concern.
  • Make sense of the dynamics of the epidemic through Somali worldviews to drive action: More needs to be done to broadcast content that is framed within Somali religious and communal worldviews, using trusted voices and sources of authority, deploying engaging formats.

AVF stresses that perspectives on the ground regarding the impact of COVID-19 are fast-changing in Somalia, as elsewhere. Thus, sustained open channels to listen to community voices and understand feedback are vital for programming that anticipates risks, adapts, and is effective.

Partner Text: 

AVF, Cambridge University, and University of Nairobi researchers. Imaqal is a project of AVF and MediaINK, with support from the Somalia Stability Fund.

Contacts (user reference): 
See video

Email from Elena Georgalla to The Communication Initiative on May 12 2020; Somali Views in the Early Days of COVID-19: A Rapid Diagnostic, AVF; Promoting Greater Gender Equality and Social Inclusion through Media in Somalia (Somalia Stability Fund), AVF; Religion, Rumour and Right Practice: Somali Views in the Early Days of COVID-19, by Elena Georgalla and Dr. Sharath Srinivasan; and webinar slides [PDF] - all accessed on May 12 2020. Image credit: Stuart Price

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