(Juba, SOUTH SUDAN) As COVID-19 spread across Africa, South Sudan, the youngest nation in the world, was one of the last African countries to report its first case. Despite having more time to prepare for the eventual arrival of the disease, the country has struggled in its response to the pandemic. Online and in hushed conversations behind closed doors, intellectuals and ordinary citizens are saying the country is on autopilot in its fight against the disease. To date, South Sudan has reported 1,776 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 30 deaths.
A United Nations staffer who had flown into Juba days earlier tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus on April 5, 2020. The case sparked outrage on social media against the UN for importing the disease. The incident exposed the sometimes-tense relationship South Sudan has had with the UN mission in the country since the South Sudanese Civil War began in December 2013. In just more than six years, until a peace deal was struck in February 2020, an estimated 400,000 people died in the war.
President Salva Kiir Mayardit and First Vice President Riek Machar Teny jointly launched the High-Level Task Force on COVID-19 to deal with the virus. This task force has so far coordinated and communicated to citizens the measures to mitigate the spread of the disease, informed by guidelines issued by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The measures included a curfew; a ban on social gatherings, and the closure of all points of entry into the country, schools, and non-essential businesses, among others.
The sweeping plan has lacked coherence and the necessary risk analysis to develop an all-round plan that fits the South Sudanese context. Given the country’s history of violent conflict, many underlying social and political challenges complicate the response to the pandemic. This includes the neglected healthcare infrastructure, economic crisis, and food insecurity. Roughly half of the 11 million population are dependent on humanitarian assistance.
Weeks went by without a clear roadmap or decisions made by the High-Level Task Force (HLTF), which led to the suspicion that the entity had been reduced to merely announcing the number of infections instead of formulating strategic policies and measurements. Decision-making was flawed, and there was no clarity on whether it was the presidency driving the response or the HLTF.
It should be noted that South Sudan has a collegial presidency—established under the peace agreement—comprising the president, the first vice president, and four other vice presidents.
COVID-19 Outbreak among Cabinet Ministers
First Vice President Riek Machar shocked the nation when he announced on May 19 that both he and his wife Angelina had tested positive for COVID-19.
Several other cabinet ministers, including the defense minister, also tested positive for the virus. Thus far, more than ten other senior members of the cabinet have tested positive, although their identities have not been revealed.
This paralyzed the work of the existing COVID-19 task force. In response, a new body called the National Task Force Committee was formed to adopt the task of the defunct HLTF. Vice President Hussein Abdelbagi Akol was put in charge, but he tested positive barely two weeks after taking the leadership position, further plunging the country’s fight against the pandemic into uncertainty.
Since then, other leaders in government and civilian life have tested positive for COVID-19, including Vice President James Wani Igga, who is in charge of the economic cluster; several members of cabinet; as well as military and civilian leaders, of whom some have died.
The government’s mishandling of the pandemic will have dire consequences in the long term and exacerbate existing socio-political problems.
In the meantime, fighting between the army and armed opposition groups in Central Equatoria, and intercommunal violence in Jonglei and Bahr El Ghazal have created another layer of associated problems. There were reports of massive displacement of civilians, killings, kidnappings, and theft of cattle.
The pandemic’s effect on the economy is going to be much more devastating than the virus itself, mainly because it will have a serious direct impact on many more people. The government has worsened the impact by its approach to the pandemic, which has been described as a scorched-earth policy, rendering useless the indispensable sources of livelihood for many people.
It should be recalled that four out of five South Sudanese live below the poverty line, and these four work in the informal sector, which has been hardest hit by the government’s containment measures. A local said, “We made sacrifices for as long as those very orders were in place, yet reaped an exponential surge in cases of corona.”
The window of opportunity to contain the outbreak was misused. Now, most South Sudanese do not have a social safety net to endure directives that have rendered their sources of livelihood obsolete. Job losses have been reported as businesses cut down on employee numbers, and prospects for employment have dwindled under the cloud of COVID-19.
In recent months, the price of oil—which accounts for more than 90 percent of government revenue—has plummeted, further undermining the government’s capability to do anything meaningful in regard to socio-economic planning and wellbeing of citizens. As the containment measures have negatively impacted the economy, non-oil revenue has also diminished, eroding government’s ability to provide basic services.
Back to “Normal”
Some of the containment measures have since been relaxed. All points of entry have been opened for domestic and international traffic, and businesses are permitted to reopen providing they implement physical distancing and wearing of masks.
For now, ordinary citizens in the streets of the capital Juba console themselves with the knowledge that COVID-19 is less lethal than Ebola (which has fortunately not crossed the border from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Uganda to the south), and that it is mainly the elderly and people with underlying health conditions who are at risk of developing severe complications. Most people have resumed their normal activities, disregarding COVID-19 guidelines.
Patrick Anyama is a freelance writer in Juba, South Sudan.