South Sudan and its Weak Response to COVID-19

By Augostine Edan Ekeno, SJ

Like other countries in the world, South Sudan, the youngest nation on earth, is also grappling with the reality of COVID-19. Though it was among the last to report the first case of COVID-19 in the East African region, South Sudan continues to experience increase in numbers of those confirmed positive. By May 14h, the number of positive cases had shot up to 194. Many people fear that the situation could get even worse as more cases are reported in almost all the major towns in the country.

Though in March, the government had demonstrated a great sense of commitment in containing the spread of COVID-19 pandemic by imposing a partial lockdown, that enthusiasm lasted only for a few weeks. The partial lockdown involved the suspension of flights, closure of borders, all schools, religious institutions, non-essential businesses and social gatherings such as sports events, conferences, weddings, and funerals. This regulation was followed by another in April which banned domestic and inter-state or inter-city movement for 14 days to curb the spread of the virus.

However, there are three issues now worrying many people concerned about the safety of the South Sudanese. The first one is to see at a time when many countries in the world are strengthening their response to COVID-19 pandemic, the South Sudanese government has decided to ease some lockdown restrictions including constraints on travel and trade, despite an increase in cases of coronavirus.

The second issue which is equally worrying at a time when national unity is needed in this country to collectively fight the spread of COVID-19 is the ongoing political bickering in Juba. On May 7th, the leaders of opposition parties led by the recently appointed first Vice-President Riek Machar rejected the allocation of South Sudan’s State governors. The leaders opposed what they termed as “a unilateral decision” by the president to assign more states to its party. They argued such move ignored the prominence of the parties, as stated in the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), and was not taken by consensus. This impasse has delayed the appointment of governors for the recently created 10 States. Absence of governors in all the States means poor or basically lack of coordinated response to curb the spread of COVID-19 at the grassroots.

The third issue is insecurity and hunger. Inter-communal conflicts continue to claim many lives and displacing many people across the country, particularly in Western Lakes State. There are also places in Equatorial region where some rebel groups are fighting government forces in an attempt to take control of mineral-rich areas. These conflicts expose untold human suffering and hunger that will expose many vulnerable people to COVID-19. The month of May marks the beginning of the rainy season, but fear of contracting COVID-19, displacement and migration will make it very difficult for many families to do cultivation. Therefore, the ongoing conflicts and the spread of COVID-19 in South Sudan is not just going to be a danger to health, rather a danger to food security as well. This is because food will no longer be cultivated in sufficient quantities and supply chains will be interrupted.

Lelia prepares food for her family in Gendrassa Refugee Camp in Maban, South Sudan. (Photo: Angela Wells/JRSEA)

Lastly, the widespread perception among the locals that COVID-19 is a disease for foreigners. This notion was so rampant during the first few weeks after the first case involving a foreign national was reported. Influenced by that narrative, some locals ignored embracing preventive measures arguing that they are not at risk of contracting the virus. After realizing its effect on the fight against the spread of COVID-19 and the threat it was posing against the foreigners, the government warned all those spreading the narrative to stop doing so. This situation also forced South Sudan COVID-19 Task-Force to refrain from announcing nationalities of those found to be positive for fear of fueling xenophobic sentiments and reactions.

The above worrying factors have weakened national government’s response to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In all the States there is no leadership to spearhead the much-needed response and coordination of enforcement of regulations imposed by the national government. Sadly, instead of the political leaders discussing about a coordinated and impactful response to fight COVID-19 pandemic, their attention has diverted to fighting for the State’s allocation. This situation has left millions of the poor people in the conflict-torn East African country, with the weakest health system in the world, vulnerable and at great risk of contracting COVID-19.

Given the current state of affairs, the safety and hope of the people now rests on the uncoordinated and scanty responses launched by various humanitarian agencies, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs). The Jesuits under the diocese of Rumbek (DOR) are engaged in supporting the regulations that maintain social distancing, washing of hands, and staying at home. The same has been reinforced within our premises by posting posters raising awareness on COVID-19 and installing containers for washing hands. More proactive responses are needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in this young nation with very weak institutions

Augostine Edan Ekeno, SJ is the Pastor at St. Teresa Reconciliation Parish and Director of the Multi-educational and Agricultural Jesuit Institute (MAJIS), Rumbek – South Sudan.