Somalia starts first inoculations with AstraZeneca vaccines

Somalia's Minister of Health Fawziya Abikar Nur, receives a shot of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and provided through the global COVAX initiative, at a ceremony to mark the start of coronavirus vaccinations in Mogadishu, Somalia Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Somalia launched COVID-19 vaccinations Tuesday with the inoculation of the health minister, who received the jab publicly to reassure the nation about its safety.

The Horn of Africa nation, which has recently experienced a surge of cases, on Monday received its first shipment of 300,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the international COVAX intiative to ensure that low- and middle-income countries receive vaccines.

Somalia’s first vaccinations happened in a small ceremony at the Martini hospital in the capital Mogadishu where Health Minister Fawziya Abikar Nur urged the public to embrace the vaccines to stem infections in the country of 15 million people and one of the continent’s weakest health systems.

“We’re planning to inoculate 20% of the public starting with the front-line workers such as the health workers and most vulnerable groups including the elderly people,” she said.

“We will be working hard to raise the awareness of our people against this dangerous virus, and campaign as well to persuade our people in trusting this vaccine which can save many lives,” she said.

Only five people, including the minister and two employees of the World Health Organization, received a shot in the arm Tuesday. It was not immediately clear why this was the case.

But the minister said authorities would get to work distributing the vaccines across Somalia, which is battling an Islamic extremist insurgency making roads dangerous.

“We’ll be distributing these doses to most of the main hospitals in the capital and the government headquarters so that the government employees can easily get their vaccination in their places of work,” she said.

Across Africa, leaders such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa have been photographed getting a COVID-19 vaccine in a bid to reassure their people about safety. Use of the AstraZeneca vaccine is being suspended in some European countries such as Germany and Italy because of reports of dangerous blood clots in a few recipients, even though the European regulator said there was “no indication” the shot was responsible. The AstraZeneca vaccine is the only one available in Somalia and many other African countries.

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed had already been inoculated, according to SONNA, the official government news agency. The agency said Mohamed, who is also known as Farmajo, expressed concern over insufficient public awareness about the pandemic as well as support being given to people suffering from COVID-19.

The virus has killed a growing number of prominent Somalis, including a former president. Somalia has recorded 8,946 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including at least 349 deaths, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But some ordinary Somalis who spoke to The Associated Press said they are not keen on getting vaccinated.

“Who knows what they’re giving these government officials and what they will be giving to the general public,” said Abdi Ga’al Issak, a government employee in the education department.

Issak asked, speaking specifically of the AstraZeneca shot, “If it is good, why those many European countries are refusing to take it? When marrying a lady, first you have to check how she behaves in her parents’ house, and if she’s good there, only then will she be good in your house as well.”

Although the government encourages masks in public, social distancing and regular hand washing to control the pandemic, many do not follow the guidelines. In Mogadishu’s streets only a few people can be seen complying. In the mosques, where most people don’t wear masks, the imams ask those praying to stand firmly side-by-side in order to keep Satan at bay.

Mogadishu-based health worker Dr. Abdirahman Bilal said that while “this second phase is more visible among the people,” not all the victims are recorded “because many people don’t make it to the hospitals” and some are not even aware there is a pandemic.

While most of Somalia’s cases have been reported in recent weeks, many people feel there are more urgent issues at hand amid a continuing stalemate over how and when to hold the country’s overdue elections.

The president’s term expired last month and his opponents say he is in office illegally. And al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremist rebel group, has been staging increasingly regular attacks on public places, including hotels.