As communities continue to battle COVID-19 and weather the storm of secondary effects left in the wake of the pandemic, we are beginning to hear more from minority and diaspora communities.

According to a study conducted by the American Psychological Association, conducted in Somaliland, among Somali refugees in the U.S., and psychological professionals, people living in or displaced from low- and middle-income countries are navigating extra layers of complexity in how they react to the pandemic. Some aspects of their lives make them more resilient, while others tend to lead to greater vulnerability.

But one study found Somali communities, both in the US and abroad doing something innovative: they are combating COVID-19 by exploring the effectiveness of community-based interventions that combine faith and evidence-based posttraumatic stress treatments.

With compounding factors such as insecurity, trauma, and forced migration, refugees and individuals living in conflict zones are at a higher risk for posttraumatic stress disorder. Community leaders and psychological professionals recommend a ‘local to global’ approach in order to understand the layers involved in the lives of refugees from war-torn countries and how they respond to the pandemic.The reality of facing a global pandemic varies depending on many factors. This study briefly considers the realities for Somali individuals and families, both in the United States and in Somaliland. The nature of a low or middle-income country—such as Somalia—lends itself to a rapid spread of communicable diseases because of inadequate health facilities, overcrowding, and lack of access to information. In the case of conflict-affected countries like Somaliland, people are still recovering from years of natural disasters and war. This greatly reduces a people’s capacity to respond quickly and effectvely.

On the ground in Somaliland, measures have been taken to spread awareness, enforce social distancing, and meet health standards to combat the spread of COVID-19. However, “Governmental public health messaging has been limited, leaving the population vulnerable to misconceptions about COVID-19 and limited responsiveness to recommended prevention measures among segments of society”.

The Islamic faith, though helpful in comforting and coping, has also influenced the population’s view on COVID-19, leading to a less serious adherence to social distancing measures because, according to researchers, “Allah determines destiny so human measures are less important”. Social distancing measures are also hard to enforce, because of the cultural value placed on collectivism. This cultural practice helps strengthen resilience and offers comfort to a community when various other crises strike; but in the case of COVID-19, there must be a balance since congregating together can lead to a wider spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, in US cities where there are larger communities of Somali refugees, families and individuals, challenges are different from their comrades in Somalia. These groups are adhering to social distancing guidelines. They share challenges with their American neighbors, such as how to work from home while homeschooling children or job loss.

However, due to the unique circumstances that come with being an internationally displaced person, these Somali communities face additional hardships. They might not have as ready-access to testing and treatment resources because they are more likely to be uninsured or need an interpreter; they are more likely to occupy those jobs deemed non-essential and therefore lost income.

Mental health issues are also compounded: “The acute effect of COVID-19 is superimposed on high rates of trauma exposure and posttraumatic stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms”. On top of this, there remains a lack of awareness, overwhelming difficulties in accessing health services and a preference to seek healing through community and religious means influenced by the Somali culture.

In order to manage COVID-19’s secondary effects, communities of displaced people must navigate local complexities while maintaining global ties. Cultures like those of Somaliland find significant healing and coping in collectivistic practices and the pandemic has proven how they have rallied around their vulnerable and helped mitigate what could have been detrimental loss.

According to researchers, “Focusing on faith and social connectedness have helped Somali communities bond together, even if specific practices have had to be adjusted.” Their resilience and adaptiveness have been tested during the pandemic and have helped them survive.

MaryRuth Davis is a M.A. student at the Humanitarian and Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. She earned her B.S. in Biology in May of 2017 before moving to Africa to work in refugee camps for two years. She received her M.A. in Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership in May of 2021.

Bentley, J. A., Mohamed, F., Feeny, N., Ahmed, L. B., Musa, K., Tubeec, A. M., Angula, D., Egeh, M. H., & Zoellner, L. (2020). Local to global: Somali perspectives on faith, community, and resilience in response to COVID-19. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(S1), S261–S263.