People in the Indian Ocean's Comoros terrified by how fast Covid-19 is spreading

The image on the left shows sanitation and health workers getting ready to help people ill with Covid-19. The image in the centre shows teams transporting a body during a burial on January 10. The image on the right shows young volunteers handing out hydro-alcoholic solution for people to use as hand sanitiser in Mohéli.
The image on the left shows sanitation and health workers getting ready to help people ill with Covid-19. The image in the centre shows teams transporting a body during a burial on January 10. The image on the right shows young volunteers handing out hydro-alcoholic solution for people to use as hand sanitiser in Mohéli. © Ali Mahmoud, Ascobef / Comoriens TV

Twenty people have already died in the new wave of Covid-19 that hit Mohéli, one of the islands in the Comoros archipelago. Healthcare workers and other concerned volunteers are struggling with a lack of aid as well as a large segment of the population that doesn’t understand what safety precautions to take in order to limit the spread. Our Observer described the situation on the ground.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has reached Mohéli, one of the four main islands that make up the Indian Ocean nation of the Comoros. There are a total of 116 active cases on the island, according to numbers by the Ministry of Health for the Union of the Comoros. Mohéli has had the highest death rate on the archipelago, losing 20 people to the disease out of 30 recorded deaths across the island nation, according to the latest numbers released on January 12. The island has a population of 850,000.

Health authorities have not yet confirmed what variant of Covid19 is present on the island. However, Mayotte 1ère, a media outlet from the neighbouring island of Mayotte, reported that patient zero was "a coach who had spent time in South Africa”, making it likely he contracted the South African variant. And while the virus hasn’t yet been sequenced on the island, medical teams have reported that "the virus is aggressive and very contagious”.

The rising number of cases has put a strain on the limited healthcare system, which only has 24 intensive care beds and four respirators. A video filmed on January 10 shows sanitation workers collecting bodies in the Monimoimdji neighbourhood in the capital, Fomboni, and burying them according to local custom. On that day alone, seven people died – the worst numbers since the start of the year.  

'If the situation continues, I think we’ll face both a health crisis and an economic crisis'

Mahmoud Ali
Mahmoud Ali
Point focal pour ASCOBEF
Mohéli, Comores

Mahmoud Ali lives in Mohéli. He is the main contact for the Comorien Association for Family Wellbeing (known by the acronym de ASCOBEF). He collects donations and organises their distribution. 

“We created village committees to help fight Covid-19. We try to support these groups by bringing them masks and disinfectant. If someone needs to disinfect their home after a family member tests positive for Covid-19, we send a team of young people called the “Movement for Youth Action” (MAJ) to disinfect the place. 

Members of a youth committee hand out disinfectant in Mohéli.
Members of a youth committee hand out disinfectant in Mohéli. © Mahmoud Ali / Facebook

'Lots of people were suspicious and said that the government was running a "corona business"'

It’s a frightening situation and people are scared by how fast the virus is spreading. A major problem is that, when people get sick, they just stay at home, hoping they’ll get better. They don’t go to the hospital until the situation is critical and, by then, it is too late. 

Up until now, many people didn’t really realise just how serious the virus is because no one in Mohéli died during the first wave that hit the Comoros [Editor’s note: in late April 2020]. Lots of people don’t believe the pandemic is real, instead believing that the government was running a 'corona business'.

I’ve often heard people say things like, 'The government doesn’t have money so, to fill their pockets, they invented corona'. Or they might just dismiss it, saying something like, 'We are in fruit season. There are always fevers going around during this season'. But slowly, with the recent deaths, people are becoming aware of the danger. 

A volunteer with ASCOBEF disinfects someone’s home.
A volunteer with ASCOBEF disinfects someone’s home. © Mahmoud Ali

 

'I had to rent a boat in order to go to Anjouan and pick up donations that came from Mayotte'

These past few days it has been especially hard to manage the bodies because of heavy rain. When we dug into the earth, it caused landslides. The day before yesterday [Editor’s note: January 10], sanitation workers had to bury two bodies in the same grave because it was so hard to find space. 

 

#Tsembehou_Infos: #new_Climat 🔴Ce matin, une pluie abondante frappent les îles Comores 🇰🇲. Notamment ,l'île de Mohéli reçoit le choc. Ici, la rivière de Msoutrouni se déchaîne..

Publiée par Bloc Central De Tsembehou sur Samedi 9 janvier 2021

This post by Bloc Central de Tsembehou, in French, reads: This morning, heavy rain hit the Comoros islands 🇰🇲. Mohéli island, especially, was hit hard. Here, Msoutrouni River is running wild.

One of the main problems is that Mohéli is isolated from the other islands and getting supplies in is difficult [Editor’s note: travel between Mohéli and the other islands has been suspended to limit the spread of the virus but the ban isn’t being fully respected, according to news site Clicanoo.re, from neighbouring Réunion Island]. I myself got permission from the Mohéli authorities and then rented a speedboat to get to Anjouan island so I could pick up donations from neighbouring Mayotte. Some boats are serving as ferries between the islands but it takes weeks to get a slot. 

 

 

Currently, there is a shortage of some basic products in Mohéli, like canned food, for example. The situation is even more complicated because most people in Mohéli are farmers. Their livelihood depends on their products being transported and sold on other islands. If the situation continues, I think we will face both a health crisis and an economic crisis.”

For the time being, the Comorien government has refused aid from Mayotte because of a disagreement over the transport of medical material, according to 1ère Mayotte. For the time being, the Comoros have also refused aid from mainland France, even if negotiations are ongoing. 

However, the Comoros did accept aid from China on January 12: a team of 48 people will travel first to Niger and then to the Comoros to help support local medical teams.