On the frontline: The junior doctor at Mogadishu’s Covid call centre

This story is part of a series called ‘On the Frontline’, first published in The Continent, which profiles some of the heroes on the frontline of Africa’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Download your free copy of The Continent here.

In June last year, 24-year-old Jihan Ali Mohamud landed in the Somali capital of Mogadishu for the first time in her life.

She had travelled to the country from her home in South London to bury her father.  

Having graduated with a degree in medicine from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School in 2018, she had taken leave from work and planned to stay in Somalia for a few weeks, to learn more about her roots and heritage. 

A month went by. Every time she thought about returning to the United Kingdom her heart sank. “It felt like I would be leaving my dad behind and each day that passed I felt more connected to Somalia.”

During this time she met Dr Abukar Jimale, the founder of the Dr Jimale Specialist Hospital in Mogadishu. He asked if she would be interested in putting her skills and clinical experience to use, and she jumped at the opportunity.

Within days, Jihan was volunteering at the hospital where, among other things, she assisted in helping train medical students and junior doctors. This soon turned into a full-time paid position. 

“I was so grateful to have the opportunity to do this, especially as I noticed the stark difference in the information, training and knowledge we in the UK have access to in comparison to here. It felt like an honour for me to be able to share all that I had learnt and be part of the system.”

Jihan had convinced herself that she would do this for a month and then return home. Then she said to herself, okay, just one more month — and then another.

“One of things my dad was most proud of was my being a doctor, and it felt like such a fitting way to honour him by doing this in the country which he loved, which he was raised in, which he called home.”

Although she has taken to life in Mogadishu, it is not without its difficulties. Her first experience of hearing and seeing a bomb blast left her with severe anxiety, something which she had to work through, reminding herself to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  

Finally, in November 2019, she boarded the flight back to the UK. On her return, she realised that she had left what felt like home. “I felt like I was cheating on the UK, but I realised that I can belong to two places.”

Within a month she was back in Mogadishu, determined to use her skills to improve healthcare in Somalia.

Earlier this year, as news of Covid-19 began to emerge, Jihan — who hopes to pursue a PhD in immunology — closely followed news about the pandemic, particularly as she continued to volunteer at the hospital.

As cases began to spread around Africa, she received a call from Abdi Barud, an adviser at the office of the prime minister, to participate in the government’s national call centre.

“I said yes within a heartbeat. With so much misinformation, panic and lack of awareness about the virus I knew lives could be at risk. I thought to myself, even if we save two lives a day, even if only five people take our advice, that’s still something.” 

The team at the call centre is a mix of doctors, medical students, analysts and mathematicians. Their roles vary from advising those calling in to analysing data and information.

During the first week they received almost 16 000 calls from around the country. Jihan and her colleagues are often working from 7.30am to 11pm. “I live off coffee,” she laughs.

When people call in and report their symptoms, these are noted down and then decisions are made about whether the case is an emergency and needs to be admitted to hospital, or if they need to isolate themselves and so need to be instructed on what actions to take. Her role primarily centres on collecting this information, analysing the data and providing it to senior colleagues. 

What is important for Jihan is that through the call centre they are able to create more awareness about the pandemic. “Somalia’s healthcare system is like a broken bridge and this pandemic is putting more pressure on it. This could ease that. There are people here who don’t know about Covid-19 or think it’s something being used to manipulate them. If we can just change one person’s mind about this, urge them to take government advice seriously, they will share that information with members of their community, and there will be a domino effect.” 

What has kept her in Mogadishu, what keeps her going through the long days, what keeps her travelling into work during the pandemic is empathy.

“I may not know much, but what I do know is when someone calls in and they are in pain, I know what steps to take, and nothing is more important than that.”

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Samira Sawlani
Samira Sawlani
Samira Sawlani is a writer, journalist and analyst, specialising in East Africa.

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