At the WCIA, we understand that the outbreak of COVID-19 has been difficult for so many people across the world. At the beginning of the pandemic, we reached out to people worldwide to share global perspectives on COVID-19, recognising the global nature of the issue, and some of the similarities and differences of experiences in different countries. We wanted to identify and share both the positive and negative stories emerging from the situation. Over a year on from the start of the pandemic, we’re reaching out again…
Originally from Madrid, Santi works in our WCIA Communications team. He has a background in Communications, Latin American Politics, and Spanish teaching. He reached out to Maya Mohamed, a Sahrawi national based in the Bojador camp in Algeria’s Tindouf province. There are a total of 6 camps, also known as wilayas, named after the greatest cities of Western Sahara.
Here’s her story
“I have been very scared with coronavirus being a mother, a daughter, a sister and an aunt. We can all see how the virus is killing people around, specially our elders. It was very scary in the beginning because there was no information, and even more scary when it reached Argelia. I fear for my parents and think of the children who can spread it out easily.”
“It was very scary in the beginning because there was no information”
“Fear is the sentiment I have been through since 2020. This is not Europe. In here we (nosotras in Spanish) don’t have the means to take precautions. We all sit together and talk, so once the virus is here it’s very easy for us to pass it on. And hospitals don’t have the same conditions as in Europe.”
It is worth mentioning that a a person aged 40+ is seen as elderly given the living conditions in the Saharan region. The way of life involves sitting and engage in conversation with the community as a crucial part of social life in the wilayas. Drinking tea and visiting your neighbours are an important part how Sahrawi people relate to one another.
“I cannot refuse preparing tea […] as it is an important part of our social life”
“If somebody comes to my house, I cannot refuse preparing tea for them as it is an important part of our social life. Maybe some have the virus and have already been with my family. There are people who don’t believe the Covid-19 is real, but I fear the virus because there is misinformation.”
At a practical level, misinformation may have had a slightly positive impact so it doesn’t feed into the collective paranoia. However, the total opacity of data leads Sahrawi people to rely on hearsay, which has an ultimate impact on their physical and emotional heatlh. Those who refuse to serve tea to their neighbours can be socially ostracized.
It becomes incredibly hard to deny this ritual even to those who are thought to be affected by Covid-19. There is a level of social rigidity that adds to incredulity about the virus, exacerbated by the lack of information; this contributes to the spread of the virus. In the beginning, great fear led to resignation when Sahrawi started drawing parallels to other more common types of flu with similar symptoms, yet with very different results. Social distancing and other preventive actions have been virtually out of question.
“Every day I wonder if my family will be affected by the pandemic”
“Every day I wonder if my family will be affected by the pandemic. And we keep seeing growing numbers in developing countries [there is no data available on Covid-19 in the Sahrawi community].”
Fear of death is a struggle for Sahrawi people, already greatly constrained by their living conditions in refugee camps for over 40 years since the Spanish decolonization started in the 70s and was later followed by the Moroccan occupation of the territory. Covid-19 is affecting the global population, but some are facing a much harder pandemic than others (see our Covid-19 series of interviews under the category of Global Perspectives). Humanitarian aid and water supply is scarcer than usual. This jeopardizes the Sahrawi way of life, for they are reliant on international cooperation.
“We don’t have remittances from men working in other places”
“We don’t have remittances from men working in other places. Food is very expensive now, schools are closed and summer camps in Spain are not organized anymore. Kids are very sad because the three months they used to spend in Spain during summer always creates very beautiful memories.”
Maya herself was once a participant of those summer camps in Spain, and had the chance to go back and forth. A bonding experience between Sahrawi people and some organizations that work tirelessly for an improvement in their quality of life. Throughout decades, Sahrawi kids have gone to Spain during summer holidays, creating a bond between families on both sides, and contributing to preserving the Sahrawi way of life.
When talking about expensive food, Maya is referring to wealthy families who supply the rest of the community with different goods, previously purchased in Argelia and totally dependent on a supply chain that has been impacted harshly by the pandemic. Ultimately, those goods are increasingly more expensive because the suppliers cannot travel to Algeria. In fact, some of those goods cannot be purchased if they are not available in your own wilaya. Travelling between wilayas was restricted during quarantine time. Hence, there are many families that are currently separated given restrictions.
OCHA – United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:
UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency: Sahrawi refugees in COVID-19