Covid-19 Effects and Response in South Sudan

woman in Maban, South Sudan carrying water on top of her head

Allan Ggita SJ [Director of Development, Jesuits Eastern Africa], updates us about the situation in South Sudan, which is similar across Eastern Africa where people’s daily struggles have been exacerbated by the effect of the pandemic and restrictions on the delivery of services.

Coronavirus remains a major security threat to the people of South Sudan. This pandemic has cast a dark cloud of despair, fear, death, starvation, confusion, hopelessness, grief, sorrow and uncertainty. The government’s preoccupation with the realisation of the revitalised peace agreement has prevented it from giving the pandemic due attention, which has resulted in the partial lockdowns measures it has put in place not being respected by the people due to a lack of proper oversight by security agents. A lack of briefings from the Covid-19 task force, scarcity of testing centres (up until now, there had been only one – in Juba), and poor health facilities is adding to the sense of uncertainty in the country.

Large meetings of people, for social and religious reasons continue to be witnessed across the country at a time when they are officially suspended by government. Even the few people who want to abide by the lockdown restrictions are left confused about what to do. Adherence to the regulations has been left to the discretion of the civilians. Many people have chosen to prioritise the need to deal with the need to earn money or feed their families, as opposed to respecting Covid-19 preventive measures issued by the government.

Currently, there is pressure on the government not to extend the just expired partial lockdown. Health officials and the general public is citing a decline in cases (of people dying under unclear circumstances) in recent weeks as the reason for demanding lifting the lockdown. Schools remain closed, although several private schools, with few students, are open. So far there is no indication as to when the schools will be reopened.

Unpredictable Situation in Wau

The situation in Wau can neither be estimated nor predicted. Covid-19 testing is done in only one government hospital; Wau Teaching Hospital. On several occasions, they were found not to have the necessary items to test those suspected of having the virus. There is no news concerning the Covid-19 Vaccine in Wau. The biggest danger is infecting one another and we don’t even know where to get proper medication.

The government advocates and advises everyone to observe the standard operating procedures (SOPs) to stop the spread of COVID-19 but people cannot strictly follow them. They eat food from the same dish/plate as per the culture, and transact all businesses with money from one hand to another since there is no mobile money transfer mechanisms in place.

A partial lockdown was instituted by the government where churches and other public places were to remain closed. This directive was not observed – all churches in Wau were opened on Palm Sunday before restrictions had ended.

Life is very normal in the market where we go to buy all our food. Even those people who have clearly visible signs of Covid-19 will be free to interact with the rest because is no self-quarantine.

Refugees Lives in Maban Affected By Pandemic

Maban is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, from neighbouring countries. At the moment it is hosting about 175,000 refugees from Sudan.

The humanitarian crisis in Maban is in relation to the lives of refugees and internally displaced persons. The overcrowded nature of refugee camps further posits a social, cultural, economic and political challenge. Due to poor shelter, refugees suffer adverse weather conditions such as cold nights in the open and very hot day temperatures. There is limited access to food and clean water. The camps are faced with poor sanitation due to the fact that there is no infrastructure that supports the crowded population. Poor sanitation results in various diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and malaria. Refugees depend on the generosity of the host community’s health systems and non-governmental organisations. In some cases, the presence of refugees causes tensions and animosity between the refugees and the host community due to what appears like a competition over the same limited resources.

With this brief background on what pertains to refugees, one can correctly speculate the tough situation that the refugees are faced with in these times of Covid-19. However, it is surprising that among the refugees in Maban, the pandemic does not “seem” to be present as an illness but it presents a global phenomenon in terms of restrictions and approaches of international organisations. As a matter of fact, refugees are exposed to other pressing threats such as food insecurity, shelter, sanitation, security threats, etc. such that, it becomes difficult for the refugee population to buy into the idea of Covid-19 in face of other more real threats. The pandemic has changed the whole system of NGOs’ programmes that hold the lives of refugees in place. However, this does not protect the refugee population from the virus.

Refugees depend on different agencies for food distribution, health services, water, education, psychosocial support, mentorship etc. In the face of Covid-19 restrictions and containment measures, all the agencies closed down or scaled down their programmes and this affected the services and support reaching refugees. It is in this reduced support by refugee agencies that the refugees feel the impact of Covid-19. Organisations can only support the refugees as long as the situation allows.

There is also a growing social-economic crisis among the refugee population. Due to limited resources by the host countries/ communities, refugees are not prioritised in different essential matters such as livelihood support, healthcare, Covid-19 awareness campaigns, vaccines distribution programmes, coping mechanisms and education programmes. With refugees getting little or no opportunities, the quality of life is compromised hence they remain in that vicious circle of poverty and suffering.

Covid-19 has distorted the existing social structures among the refugee population through which refugee organisations reach the refugees. Most community-driven programs have been affected by imposed Covid-19 containment measures. It, therefore, becomes impossible for organisations to gather people and deliver services through refugee community structures. The movement control has affected much the psychosocial activities and information flow within the refugees themselves.

Jesuit Agencies Adapt to Situation

However, the situation is not entirely  negative. As the world gets more creative around the Covid-19 virus, reasonable interventions by different refugee agencies have come up to ensure that services are brought closer to the refugees and in due time.

We have explored the use of technology to reach the people who participate in both education and psychosocial programmes. However, the idea of technology is faced with great challenges due to the remoteness of the place and affordability issues.

We are seriously involved in the advocacy agenda. In the face of Covid-19, we have made our voice heard on behalf of our brothers and sisters on matters of protection from the adverse effects, a non-discriminatory process in vaccines distribution (of other diseases), protection from hunger, and gender-based violence. Together with people of goodwill, we advocate for international solidarity, an attitude that unites humanity by recognising that we are all faced with Covid-19 and we need to walk together and protect the weak and vulnerable.

Each place in South Sudan where Jesuits work presents a unique context with some common threats including food insecurity, illiteracy, floods, drought, and so on. People here are forced to attend to their daily struggles before dealing with the threat of the pandemic.

Allan Ggita, SJ
Director of Development, Jesuits Eastern Africa.