Noelle Fitzpatrick, from Cavan has been Country Director of JRS in South Sudan for over a year now. We asked her a few questions about the challenges she and the organisation have faced in that time, as Covid-19 added another layer of complexity to her role and to life in general.
Q1; What was the effect of the Covid-19 threat on JRS programmes and on refugees?
The shutting down of international and internal travel made visiting project sites and moving supplies difficult and this affected our ability to keep normal programming going. Closure of schools and all institutes of learning meant that teacher-training work had to be suspended for a time until we could figure out a viable way to deliver tuition remotely. The risks associated with Covid-19 were many in that the longer children are out of school, especially girls, the higher the risk that they will not return. Protection risks for children grow when they do not have structured support and learning.
The regions in South Sudan felt vulnerable to the risk of Covid-19 from travellers coming from the capital Juba since that was the primary locus of infection. This is particularly true in Maban where the health system is fragile. Unfortunately, refugees began to be demonised as the ones bringing the risk of Covid-19 infection – both refugees from DRC passing into Yambio where JRS operates and refugees from Sudan passing into Maban.
Refugees have so many other threats to their existence and wellbeing to deal with Covid-19 remained relatively low on the list of their many concerns. The ability to socially distance within the camps is very limited, and people struggled to know how to respond concretely to a threat which in reality has not materialised on the ground in the same was as it has in Europe.
Q2; What impact did it have on people’s mental health?
In the initial months there was a lot of anxiety, some of which was stoked by the government response to the threat – closure of bars, stalls, limited numbers on public transport – all of which put severe economic pressure on people who live day-to-day. Since those restrictions were lifted, for most people it is the economic threat of Covid-19 that causes the most stress.
JRS got involved in risk communication and community engagement work giving the facts of Covid-19 to people and people were grateful for the opportunity to clarify exactly what the virus was and how it differed from Ebola. We did this through our home visitor team also through call in radio programming.
JRS was recently asked by UNHCR to take the lead on providing Psychological First Aid training to front line health workers involved directly in positive Covid-19 cases.
The closure of churches had a big impact on people since this is a largely Christian country, and its very much part of the fabric of life to go to church at weekends and choir practice etc. during the week. Having all that shut down had a very detrimental effect on people’s coping ability by depriving them of their normal social outlets.
Q3; What change have you found the most difficult to deal with?
Covid-19 has slowed down all plans and processes – from planned recruitments to teacher training schedules. Not knowing when schools might re-open made it difficult to plan, and the stalled political process meant no governors were in place, therefore there was nobody to lead on the response at ground level.
It can be difficult to keep the team focused and motivated when there is no clarity about how long the schools will be closed, and when staff are concerned about their own families. In it all we have to remind them that we must keep focus on what we can control rather than what we cant in it all, and how we try to protect those who are most vulnerable amongst us from infection.
Another challenge is managing financial risks as bank liquidity is an issue – how to move money, pay salaries, and manage cash flow – all consequences of the economic impact of Covid-19. Coping with elevated security risks and the economic deterioration which has led to increased criminality in general have also been significant hurdles over the past few months.
Q4: How did JRS pivot to meet the challenges of the past year?
Many of the team from Maban are working from the Country Office in Juba on rotational basis doing remote tutoring and counselling by Microsoft Teams while construction work continues on new staff accommodation. Before people shared tents but that is no longer possible given the Covid-19 risk so the whole team cannot relocate until that accommodation is finished. It has forced us to fast track better IT options – online learning platforms to complement the classroom learning because even when schools do re-open fully it will have to be under some changed conditions. We have been involved in the distribution of radios for small group learning by children listening to education programming on radio – and JRS providing tutors to follow up those small groups.
We engaged in Covid-19 risk communication work. We did it in the very personal way that is the JRS approach – to complement the loud hailer approach of other organisations – and we realised that how messages are framed and how questions are posed to communities matter a lot to their ability to understand and respond. Just advising people they have to socially distance is not enough – people do not know what that means or what to do with that information.
Q5; What are your hopes and predictions for next year in South Sudan?
I’ve learned that it is extremely difficult if not impossible to predict how things will go in South Sudan. Political deadlock persists – the two big men leading opposite forces within government have been on opposing sides for so long and may not be able to ever break out of that dynamic. There is huge risk that economic deterioration directly linked to the global economic impact of Covid-19 will destabilise the very fragile political situation. South Sudan is an oil-based economy, and the slump the demand for oil globally which will continue until there is economic recovery will continue to affect the country’s stability.
Q6: What insights or wisdom did living through the changes in 2020 bring?
The importance of supporting the JRS team, keeping them briefed of plans, progress, supporting, bringing in Covid-19 protective measures, supporting those sick or anxious about someone sick. Evolving strong local staff capacity to empower them to be proactive in adapting and re-orienting and keeping things moving amidst change. The pandemic has been a great opportunity to make progress in IT-based knowledge and learning which will benefit everyone. The year has also taught us to know our limits and to develop positive coping mechanisms to maintain our equilibrium.