In early March, some of our extended Somali family returned to London from Umrah in Saudi Arabia with a flu-like fever. A few days later, I attended our local mosque in Greenford; many people were coughing and sneezing. I thought it was just a seasonal cold. The following weekend, my wife Khadijo and my mother-in-law attended a community wedding; everyone hugs and shakes hands at such gatherings.
In March, I was so weak and almost collapsed on my short journey home from work. My wife Khadijo also felt like her legs were dragging around “several kilos of stones,” breathing grew harder, our sense of taste and smell was deserting us and fever visited during the nights – all telltale symptoms. My pregnant sister-in-law fell ill too, as did my mother-in-law. Only our 6-year-old stayed healthy. “You’ve got COVID-19,” a National Health Service (NHS) doctor advised on the phone. We should self-isolate for 14 days.
Thankfully we all recovered without needing to be hospitalized, but that we succumbed to the virus in the first place speaks to a broader trend: black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in England, and Europe in general, have been hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19. I’ll share some observations about my own community, hailing from the Horn of Africa.
A heavy toll
In Britain, while there’s no hard data about Somali-community infection rates, several high-profile individuals have died from the virus, including the former prime minister of Somalia, Nur Hussain Hassan, and Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeide, a much-loved Somali musician. Other Somali deaths from COVID-19 have been reported in the British media.
Dr. Samira Hassan, a Somali-born general practitioner in Leicester, says anecdotal evidence suggests an alarming number of Somalis are either dead from the pandemic or in critical condition. Abdirashid Fidow from the Anti-Tribalism Movement, a nonprofit organization tackling tribalism and promoting fairer societies, told me he can barely find a Somali in London who hasn’t lost a friend or relative to COVID-19. “Many of the older Somali men I knew, who used to socialize in community restaurants in my local area, have gone,” he said.
The U.K. government is investigating why ethnic communities such as those belonging to the Somalis have been so badly impacted by the pandemic, but Somali communities in other European countries aren’t doing much better. In Sweden, at least six out of the first 15 COVID-19 deaths in Stockholm were Somalis and the community remains starkly overrepresented in the death toll. In Norway, 25% of those testing positive for COVID-19 by April 19 were foreign-born, and Somalis account for 6% of all confirmed cases – more than 10 times their share of the population. In Helsinki, Finland, almost 200 Somalis had tested positive by mid-April, accounting for about 17% of positive cases – again, 10 times their population share in the city.
Fertile ground for far-right
The pandemic has brought new challenges to the community in Europe. Far-right groups have already started to stigmatize Somali and other ethnic communities by associating the pandemic with migrants and refugees. As one right-wing Scandinavian commentator tweeted, this is “A Chinese virus killing African Muslims in Sweden. The gift of open borders.”
Helsinki’s deputy mayor Nasima Razmyar is among those warning about a new wave of discrimination against minorities in Finland and elsewhere in Europe as a result of the pandemic's prevalence in ethnic communities. She attributes the disproportionate impact of the virus on ethnic communities to disadvantage and inequality.
The following factors leave Somali communities uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19.
Dr. Hassan, the Leicester general practitioner, and Mohamed Ibrahim, a community leader in London, link the rapid and widespread transmission of the virus with cultural practices in the Somali community, such as large gatherings in mosques and intergenerational groups living in cramped households, which makes social distancing near impossible. It is important to note, however, that in ordinary circumstances this closeness of extended families is also a source of resilience and support for Somalis. I have observed my mother in-law’s irreplaceable and positive influence on my daughter Eemaan’s language, cultural acquisition and sense of belonging.
But such cultural practices become risk factors in a pandemic. Mohamed Ibrahim, a community leader in London, told ITV News that some Somalis feel compelled to visit relatives battling the virus or bereaved families who’ve lost loved ones to it. Social distancing is “alien to us,” he said.
Somalis’ nomadic culture and easy travel between European countries also contributed to the virus’ spread before the lockdowns. My own London home, for example, had been a transit point for traveling friends and relatives.
The refugee legacy
Europe’s Somali community overwhelmingly arrived from the 1990s onward as refugees from Somalia’s brutal civil war, often after many years in refugee camps in Africa. The war generation carries the scars of trauma. Settlement in the West brought new anxieties arising from unemployment, culture shock, unfamiliar weather, discrimination, language and housing problems. All these experiences contribute to the underlying chronic conditions that weaken the immune system and put community elders at risk of COVID-19 and other diseases.
Mohamed Ali, at Global Health Policy at Kings College University also cites a lack of healthy eating as suitable to the new environment, lack of exercise and a vitamin D deficiency as factors contributing to the community’s vulnerability.
Poverty is also a factor. Evidence from Sweden, Norway, Finland and the U.K. shows the pandemic is widespread in poor neighborhoods populated with migrants. Trude Margrete Arnesen, a specialist in community medicine at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, argues that poor and crowded neighborhoods have facilitated the quick spread of the virus.
Rumors and unreliable information
Rumors and unfounded speculations have more currency in communities that tend to be suspicious of official authorities – the problem is pronounced among Somalis who experienced dictatorship in their homeland before the civil war. I have heard people being urged not to go to hospitals if infected because they will be left without proper care, interpreters won't be available so they might be prescribed the wrong medication and if their condition deteriorates they’ll be euthanized and their loved ones prohibited from giving a proper burial, so better to die at home.
The misinformation feeds off tragic cases such as that of 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, from South London who died of the virus alone in hospital; his family could not even attend his funeral as they were forced to self-isolate.”
The government has since announced close family members will be able to see dying relatives to say goodbye.
London physician Hina Shahid told ITV News that people from Somali, Sudanese, Bengali and Pakistani communities “may not trust information coming from professionals.”
Like other migrant groups, Somalis are overrepresented in essential and front-line jobs such as nursing, care work, driving and cleaning, which have a high risk of exposure to the virus. There are stories circulating in the community about these workers unknowingly transmitting the virus. I heard one story about a National Health Service worker who was put into self-isolation in a hotel room after she tested positive to coronavirus. Her mother insisted her daughter visit to collect “healing” remedies such as garlic, black seeds, ginger and so on. Despite the young woman keeping her errand short, her mother became infected, refused to be hospitalized and died.
So what are the solutions?
No single solution addresses all the problems. I would urge the Somali community to speak publicly about the impact of the pandemic and air their challenges with society at large. This can help mobilize support groups and forge alliances.
Somali communities in Europe should learn from other ethnic communities hit hard by the pandemic. The newly established community task force in the U.K. should identify and allocate resources and expertise to offer immediate support for families affected by COVID-19. Authorities need to better develop and disseminate information campaigns about the pandemic in the Somali language.
Finally, the government should set up specialist teams to research the longer-term consequences of COVID-19 on Somalis’ mental health, education, employment, housing and social integration, as the changes brought by the pandemic are likely to be profound.
*Research associate, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London