Tag Archives: Rakhine state

Half a year into the pandemic, there are still people who haven’t heard of it — and it’s bad for everyone

In the age defined by a pandemic, you’d be surprised to find out that someone hasn’t heard about the outbreak. But some pretty large groups of people haven’t.

United Nations Operation in Somalia vehicles in Mogadishu in the 1990s.
Image via Wikimedia.

We’re almost half-year into the most disruptive event most of us have ever lived through. Given how much it impacted our lives, how it holds headlines, you’d think that everyone heard about the coronavirus by now.

And yet, migrants arriving in Somalia are surprised to hear United Nations workers tell them of COVID-19. A year-long internet blackout in the states of Rakhine and Chin in Myanmar, imposed by the government amidst a conflict with the Arakan Army, a local insurgent group, means that many people there likely haven’t heard about the pandemic, either.

Old news

“We’ve been interviewing migrants for many years,” said Celeste Sanchez Bean, a program manager with the U.N. migration agency based in Somalia, to Associated Press (AP). “I’m not super shocked that levels of awareness of the coronavirus are still very low.”

Monitors for the International Organization for Migration, the U.N. migration agency keep watch over the border of Somalia, as it lays right in the middle of some of the world’s most dangerous routes — across the Red Sea, through Yemen into rich Gulf countries.

As part of this effort, they question migrants on their origin, destination, and reason for travelling, so they can spot potential traffickers or other evil-doers. Since the outbreak, they’ve also started asking them whether they’re aware of the coronavirus.

Image modified after user Image Editor / Flickr.

Bean explained that in the week ending June 20, 51% of the 3,471 people tracked said they had never heard of COVID-19. The percentage of people who hadn’t heard of it was 88% in the early weeks of the pandemic.

Most people going this way are young men from rural Ethiopia with no education and with generally poor internet access. Some were not even aware Yemen was engulfed in a war despite the fact that they were going that way.

Such findings showcase how hard it may be for relatively remote populations to even be aware that there’s a pandemic going on. With this in mind, co-coordinating a truly global response to what is a very much global problem seems hopeful at best. Still, the U.N. is working on spreading the word. Refugees are given a basic rundown of the latest events, the symptoms to watch out for, and are educated on how to keep themselves safe.

Communication breakdowns

Myanmar, meanwhile, doesn’t have the connection issues of Ethiopia — but it does have a local insurgency problem.

Authorities imposed an Internet shutdown in nine specific areas and townships in Rakhine and Chin back in June 2019. The step was taken over concerns that the insurgent Arakan Army (which wants more autonomy for Rakhine’s Buddhist population) might be using mobile internet to organize and “target the army”, according to Bussiness Insider. Rakhine is home to the Rohingya Muslim population. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled persecution into neighboring states.

Myanmar with Rakhine State highlighted.
Image modified after Google Maps.

The shutdown has since been lifted from one of these towns but remains in effect in the other eight.

“We will restore internet service if there are no more threats to the public or violations of the telecommunications law,” a government official said as the shutdown was extended from June to August this year.

Meanwhile, humanitarian workers in these regions are reporting that whole communities are unaware that there’s a pandemic at all. AP cites Htoot May, an MP for the Arakan National League for Democracy in Myanmar’s parliament, as saying that the has to explain the pandemic to people “from the beginning”, telling them about social distancing and proper hand hygiene.

Such cases show that we still live in a world where the flow of information can become politicized, or is simply insufficient to keep everybody in the loop.

A pandemic, especially one like the COVID-19 outbreak for which we have no natural defenses, is ultimately a global issue. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ with highly infectious diseases. As long as communities don’t know that there’s a threat, they’ll be completely vulnerable. And if they are left unprotected, there’s always the risk of a new wave taking place.

We all are very much failing people such as those in Myanmar and Africa during this pandemic.

Free access to and flow of information is vial in such cases, which makes the fact that some people are still unaware of the pandemic surprising, but also very worrying.