South Sudan’s Vulnerability To COVID-19

In the world’s youngest country, where armed conflict has led to widespread displacement and massive famine, COVID-19 is only making a dire situation worse. South Sudan’s security and humanitarian conditions are only expected to deteriorate as the virus hinders critical humanitarian aid deliveries, burdens an already fragile health system, and staunches the flow of UN peacekeepers to the area.

In response to the looming crisis, the OHCHR Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan called on armed actors to pause their campaigns of violence. “Armed conflict in South Sudan remains on-going, and we echo the urgent call made by UN Secretary General António Guterres on 23 March for an immediate global ceasefire,” said Commissioner Barney Afako. Though armed actors have not relented, the pandemic is disrupting peacekeeping operations in South Sudan. Scheduled rotations of new UN peacekeepers have been postponed as a result of the virus, according to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is tasked with protecting civilians, implementing the country’s tenuous peace agreement, and monitoring human rights violations within the country. However, the mission has come under increased scrutiny since the start of the pandemic, as South Sudan’s first four cases of COVID-19 were UN staff, according to the New Humanitarian.

Given the fragile security environment in South Sudan, and crumbling health infrastructure, which has been devastated by conflict, the introduction of the virus represents a significant threat to the lives of the country’s most vulnerable. The war between President Salva Kiir’s government and rebel groups mobilized by Vice President Riek Machar has forced an estimated 3.7 million South Sudanese from their homes, according to Mercy Corps. Though a series of peace processes led to the creation of a unity government in February, peace remains tenuous at best, and the country’s 1.9 million IDPs show no sign of returning home. Instead, many live in high-density camps, where families live in tents “often inches apart from one another,” according to Yasmin Sooka OHCHR’s Commission Chair on Human Rights in South Sudan. As a result, implementing social distancing measures has proved nearly impossible.

Additionally, the country’s protracted conflict has led to the disintegration of important public services, such as hygiene, water, and health care provision. Forces on both sides of the conflict made common practice of destroying, burning, looting, and occupying hospitals, as well as detaining, abducting, and killing medical personnel and aid workers as a tactic of war, according to the Associated Press. As such, the public health care system is woefully underprepared to confront the rising number of infected people. In response to the crisis, the World Bank supplied $7.6 million in emergency funds to the South Sudanese government to support the country’s health care system. Specifically, the funds will be used to procure medical supplies and equipment, strengthen infection prevention and control measures, provide training to health workers, and improve health screenings at points of entry, according to the World Bank.

Unfortunately, emergency provisions will likely not be sufficient to combat the country’s precarious security and humanitarian situations. International and regional actors must invest in South Sudan’s long-term development, as well as encourage its burgeoning unity government to protect the interests of all. Only by ending bloody patterns of violence and reprisal can critical public sectors begin to provide adequate care to the South Sudanese people.