Meet refugee camp’s ‘Corona Guy’

Every weekday morning, from 10 to 11am, Abdullahi Mire hosts a radio show for the residents of Dadaab. His studio is inside a converted shipping container, once used by the United Nations to deliver supplies to this sprawling network of three refugee camps in northeastern Kenya.

Mire is using his platform on Radio Gargar, the settlement’s local station, to battle a surge of misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic.

He tells his listeners “don’t panic,” provides them with regular updates and brings on experts to dispel the myths about the virus. His voice has become so well known that people refer to him as the “Corona Guy.”

As of June 16, Kenya has recorded just 3727 cases of Covid-19 and 104 deaths. Largely cut off from the rest of the country, Dadaab — home to more than 217000 people and one of the largest settlements of its kind in the world — looked like it had been spared. That changed on May 18, when the Kenyan health ministry confirmed the first two cases of Covid-19 in the Ifo and Dagahaley camps.

A full-scale Covid-19 outbreak in Dadaab could be devastating. Although the complex’s poor conditions create a perfect environment for the virus, Mire sees “ignorance and a lack of education” about the disease as an equally serious threat.

“Most of the community are not even concerned about the virus,” he said. “People say, ‘We are black, our sun is hot’,” in the belief that both factors offer some form of protection against infection.

Mire was just three years old when his family arrived in the camps, after fleeing the civil war in neighbouring Somalia. He now runs the Dadaab Book Drive, an educational initiative set up by former residents, and has become a prominent local figure.

Abdullahi Mire is countering misinformation through the camp’s radio

It is difficult to pinpoint where the misinformation spreading through Dadaab originates, but social media networks, WhatsApp groups and word of mouth play a part in its proliferation. Mire sees it as his job to present factually accurate information that is just as easy to understand and pass from person to person.

On air and social media, Mire “preaches the gospel” of washing hands and provides a steady stream of reliable information to residents on how best to protect themselves against the virus. He believes that radio is by far the best way to reach people in Dadaab, a view that makes sense when one considers Somalia’s age-old tradition of oral storytelling.

But, for the camp’s residents, taking even basic precautions against Covid-19 presents difficulties. “Dadaab is a place where you queue for everything,” Mire said. “Social distancing is not something you can do here, when hundreds of people share just one tap for water.”

Dr John Kiogora, the senior health coordinator at the International Rescue Committee, agrees. He said that, because of poor sanitation and overcrowding, refugee settlements — be they in Kenya, Lebanon or Bangladesh — are highly vulnerable to large-scale outbreaks of infectious diseases. He added that the density of Dadaab’s population is a particularly serious problem.

“Refugee families in Dadaab live together in tents and makeshift homes, and are confined together in small spaces without access to proper water, sanitation and hygiene, making conditions ripe for the spread of the disease,” he said.

Muhuba Hassan Hilow, a single mother, who lives with her eight children in the Dagahaley camp, faces these realities every day. For her, following even the most rudimentary hygiene and social distancing guidelines is an impossible luxury.

“We have very little water, no soap to wash hands, and just enough to wash our clothes,” she said. “This is a disease God has brought upon us — all I can do is pray.”

Extra provisions have been made in Dadaab, including three isolation centres with a total of 800 beds and one ventilator, and case numbers

have not risen since the initial confirmations. According to Eujin Byun, a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency in Kenya, “So far we haven’t had any cases of local transmission and contact tracing is ongoing.”

Mire hopes the figures remain static and is using every available means to pass on potentially lifesaving facts to the people of Dadaab. He has helped with the translation into Somali of World Health Organisation (WHO) information on Covid-19, which has been distributed around the camp in the form of leaflets and posters. He is now producing a radio play about the pandemic and has recently received a grant from the media development charity Internews to continue his work.

More often than not, he finds himself having to disprove ideas based on fake science — that the virus does not affect Somalis or that five daily Islamic prayers will protect individuals against infection, for instance.

But a number of darker theories are also common in Dadaab. While some residents do not take the disease seriously, many others are terrified by it. This fear has been directed at “ foreigners” and those who have recently travelled abroad.

“Some believe that it originated in the West,” Mire said. “There are also rumours that these cases were caused by international aid agencies to make money.”

Hassan Mohamed Yusuf lives in Dadaab’s Hagadera camp. Having fled Mogadishu 16 years ago, he is now the father of six adult children and grandfather to 13 more. He said that whenever someone comes in from the outside world, terror grips his neighbours.

“Everyone is very scared. People literally run away from them shouting, ‘This guy is a foreigner,’ or ‘He has recently been to America,’” he said.

This tide of misinformation about Covid-19 is not unique to Dadaab.

In May, the WHO warned that Africa could be hit with 44-million infections and 190 000 deaths. In April a survey of more than 3000 people carried out in Somalia by Save the Children showed that 42% of respondents believed Covid-19 to be part of a “government campaign”. Aid workers and peacekeepers have been attacked by angry crowds in the Central African Republic, as foreigners are increasingly seen as a key vector of infection.

Kenya is one of Africa’s refugee hotspots. The nation hosts more than half a million displaced people, most of whom have escaped conflict in Somalia and South Sudan.

Mire worries that this fear of outsiders will also be projected onto the people in Dadaab. He said the Kenyan government “does not fully trust refugees” and that members of this vulnerable population are likely to find themselves being scapegoated as carriers of the disease.

On May 16, President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a directive sealing Kenya off from Somalia. Prior to this, in late April, the government had placed camps such as Dadaab and Kakuma, in the northwest of the country, under strict lockdowns, in an effort to stem the potential spread of Covid-19. Travel in and out of the camps has been stopped, with per- mission granted to aid workers on a case by case basis.

The Kenyan government has previously threatened to close the Dadaab complex — most recently in March last year. Now, Mire and many others fear that politicians may seize opportunities provided by the pandemic to further this agenda.

Dadaab is now more isolated than ever. Since the WHO designated Covid-19 as a global pandemic in March, “no one has told us much about the virus”, Yusuf said. “Everything has shut down and the aid workers are nowhere to be seen.

“I am so scared because I have diabetes, and I have heard that people like me will be most affected,” he added. “We have very little, and no healthcare here. This will finish us.”

But Yusuf has taken Mire’s announcements to heart. Despite warm greetings being a big part of Somali culture, after listening to the advice on Radio Gargar, he now no longer shakes hands with people when he meets them. Proof that the message is working.

This story is co-published with Coda Story

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Ismail Einashe
Ismail Einashe is an award-winning journalist and writer covering migration, human rights and international news. He has written for the Guardian, BBC News, the Sunday Times, Foreign Policy, NBC, the Nation and NPR among many others. Previously, he worked for BBC Radio & Current Affairs and he has presented on BBC Radio.

Related stories

Malawi court judges win global prize

Members of the small African country’s judiciary took a stand for democracy to international approval

Trouble brewing for Kenya’s coffee growers

Kenyan farmers say theft of their crop is endemic – and they suspect collusion

Women are entitled to own land

Too many laws and customs in too many African countries still treat women as minors

The challenges of delivering a Covid-19 vaccine in Africa requires a new approach

It is imperative that we train healthcare workers and participate in continent-wide collaboration

Why we must fight to secure places for more women and young people in politics

Too often, governments talk the talk on gender equality, but fail to walk the walk

US ‘brokered’ agreements on Israel: Wind of change or toxic blast of extortion?

The United States is negotiating with African countries that will see them exchange Palestinian people’s rights for improved economic and trade conditions

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

Fifteen witnesses for vice-chancellor probe

Sefako Makgatho University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati had interdicted parliament last month from continuing with the inquiry

Constitutional Court ruling on restructuring dispute is good for employers

A judgment from the apex court empowers employers to change their workers’ contracts — without consultation

Audi Q8: Perfectly cool

The Audi Q8 is designed to be the king in the elite SUV class. But is it a victim of its own success?

KZN officials cash in on ‘danger pay for Covid-19’

Leadership failures at Umdoni local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal have caused a ‘very unhappy’ ANC PEC to fire the mayor and chief whip

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday