Who hasn’t heard of COVID-19 by now? More than you think

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In this photo taken Wednesday, May 20, 2020, stranded Ethiopian migrants receive informational materials informing them how to protect themselves against the coronavirus, in Bosaso, Somalia. A half-year into the most momentous pandemic in decades, it's hard to imagine that anyone, anywhere hasn't heard of the coronavirus but hundreds of migrants arriving in Somalia are proving some people are still unaware of COVID-19. (International Organization for Migration (IOM) - Somalia via AP)

JOHANNESBURG – A half-year into the most momentous pandemic in decades, it’s hard to imagine that anyone, anywhere has not heard of the coronavirus. But scores of migrants arriving in Somalia tell United Nations workers every day that they are unaware of COVID-19.

Monitors for the International Organization for Migration, the U.N. migration agency, interview people at the border in Somalia, a crossroads on one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes: across the Red Sea with traffickers, through war-ravaged Yemen and into rich Gulf countries.

The questions for migrants are simple. Origin? Destination? Why are you going? But after the first infections were confirmed in Somalia, a new one was added: How many people in your group are aware of the coronavirus?

In the week ending June 20, just over half — 51% — of the 3,471 people tracked said they had never heard of COVID-19.

“The first time I saw this I was also very shocked,” Celeste Sanchez Bean, a program manager with the U.N. agency based in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, told The Associated Press.

The findings, little more than a line in the agency's reports, are a reminder of the huge challenges in reaching everyone in the world with information about the pandemic, much less getting them to wear face masks.

The migrants are often young men from rural parts of neighboring Ethiopia. Most have no education, and some are from communities where internet access is low, Bean said. She doubted that anything had been lost in translation.

“We’ve been interviewing migrants for many years,” she said.