“South Sudan is facing a triple threat of hunger, floodings and now also COVID-19”, says Bashir James, Cordaid’s humanitarian aid programme manager based in Juba. To help avert the new Corona crisis, Cordaid integrated a COVID-19 prevention and control response in its ongoing health, humanitarian and resilience activities.
(One of the Cordaid volunteers, part of the South Sudan Youth Fight Against COVID-19 in Juba. They conduct door to door awareness, disseminate key messages about COVID-19 prevention and also distribute pieces of soap and masks. © Konatehub Instagram)
9 years of independence have hardly given the South Sudanese people a chance to materialise any of the dreams they were hoping for when they gained sovereignty in 2011. On the contrary. Although there seems to be a lull in civil war fighting since the 2018 ceasefire, pockets of communal violence continue to uproot communities. Hunger, displacement and severe food insecurity persist. Last year, floodings devastated parts of the country and they are expected to do the same this year. Though less than a hundred cases have been confirmed so far, COVID-19 is already exacerbating the humanitarian situation.
‘We’d rather die from COVID-19 than from hunger’
“No COVID-19 deaths have been reported so far”, says Bashir James. “But the risk of the pandemic getting out of control is real. Testing capacity doesn’t exceed 70 samples a day and the confirmed cases – 58 on May 5th – had all been traveling extensively in the country. On top of that”, he continues, “people don’t really adhere to national prevention measures. Markets, for example, are fully operational.”
Limited access to information and awareness of the disease partly account for this. But there are other factors at play. More than half of South Sudan’s population faces unprecedented levels of food insecurity, according to recent FAO UN reports. “Poverty and hunger are such that people cannot stay out of business for a day. They need to grow and sell food and other basic items”, explains Bashir. “Most people say they’d rather die from COVID-19 than from hunger.”
Prevention measures create new threats
So far, nationwide contagion control measures include curfews between 6.30 AM and 7 PM, closure of the national airport, a ban on interstate travel, and 5+ gatherings. “But the closure of borders with Uganda and Kenya has been most impactful”, claims Bashir.
“In live radio talk shows, we discuss the pandemic and tackle rumours. Like the misconception that the new Coronavirus cannot infect people in hot climates.”
Most of South Sudan’s supplies come from these two countries and borders were closed a month ago, as a means to stop the Coronavirus. “More than half of the lorries are blocked at the borders”, says Bashir. “Increased scarcity pushed food prices, making even the most basic staple food unaffordable to a lot of families. A kilo of posho, maize flour, now costs 350 South Sudanese pounds, where it was 200 just a few weeks ago.”
Border closure also seriously affects the mobility of refugees. Since 2017, nearly a million people crossed the border with Uganda, seeking a safe haven to survive. “Though the borders are porous, and people still find ways to cross, the situation has become more difficult for refugees. More people need to resort to bribery in order to cross, pushing them into poverty even further.”
Cordaid COVID-19 response in South Sudan
As of April, Cordaid has launched a 6 months COVID-19 prevention and control response. “Both in communities, by going from door to door, at markets and roadside stations, as well as in health centers, we are sensitizing and informing people and staff on the disease, its symptoms, its transmission, and prevention. We distribute soap, personal protection kits, and improve waste management to reduce transmission risks. In live radio talk shows, we discuss the pandemic and tackle rumours. Like the misconception that the new Coronavirus cannot infect people in hot climates. And we will establish referral systems with health facilities that have a Corona treatment ward”, Bashir explains.
Some of the COVID-19 awareness-raising and soap distributing volunteers in Juba. © Konatehub Instagram
Cordaid integrates all Covid-19 response activities into our ongoing health, humanitarian and resilience responses. The 180 health facilities, of which 5 are hospitals, as well as the humanitarian networks we have been working with over the past years, now prove their added value in addressing the new crisis.
“For people who are in dire need, delays in humanitarian support can be lethal. This is why we are now resorting more to direct cash transfers.”
“We concentrate our efforts in crisis areas where we have ongoing operations”, Bashir adds. “Mostly this is in the North, in places like Wau, Malakal, and Nimule. These last two are hotspots, given their closeness to Sudan and Uganda. Cordaid also runs hospitals in both locations. But with a recent spike in positive COVID-19 cases in Torit and Juba, we have included these locations in our response. In total, our COVID-19 response reaches out to 60.000 people and 200 health staff.
COVID-19 diminishes humanitarian access
Lack of humanitarian access due to COVID-19 is complicating the response. “We, humanitarians, can’t travel between states and borders are closed. It delays procurement, supply, and distribution of essential food and non-food items. But so far, none of our operations have been suspended. However, for people who are in dire need, delays in humanitarian support can be lethal. This is why we are now resorting more to direct cash transfers for 700 extremely vulnerable households in Unity State, all of them refugees who have recently returned. We daily assess market developments and take increased food prices into account. This way, people can procure whatever they need most to survive the coming months”, Bashir explains.
Act now, to avert the worst
From Juba, where, like many South Sudanese, he has been cut off from his family in Uganda since December, Bashir James sends out a call to the rest of the world. “South Sudan, one of the poorest countries in the world, is facing a triple threat of hunger, severe floodings in the coming months, and of the pandemic. Mobility restrictions, food shortages, and skyrocketing prices are now burdening a population that has been dealing with war, displacement, and hunger for many years. Though armed conflict has decreased recently, there is a looming sense of frustration and anger among people, that could easily turn into renewed conflict. Humanitarians are doing whatever they can. But we need more support, from the international community and from the government, to avert the worst.”