South Sudan – Standing on the edge of a precipice

Published: 14 Apr 2020

MAF Pilot, Wim Hobo, flying coronavirus test kits from Juba to Wau in South Sudan

Jenny Davies started her new communications job with MAF in South Sudan back in February, not long after the pandemic started. In a country with only a handful of ventilators and a soaring cost of living, Jenny describes daily life in Juba and how the authorities are responding to coronavirus…

South Sudan - a country where nearly two million people are living in cramped camps displaced by war – has at least four confirmed coronavirus cases to date (BBC).  As one of the world’s poorest countries, South Sudan depends mostly on foreign aid to run its very basic health care system. Jenny knew life here would be challenging, but nothing prepared her for this:

‘As news of coronavirus spreads across the world, I find myself anxiously scrolling through newsfeeds just like everyone else. I know needlessly feeding my anxiety, when there’s nothing I can do, isn’t healthy. When it’s all anyone can talk about, it seems wise to stay informed.

Mission Aviation Fellowship’s office is based near Juba’s international airport. Two weeks in – before lockdown - I joined MAF’s South Sudan Covid-19 meeting. The hefty Programme Security and Contingency document landed on the table with a thud. It contained pages and pages of scenarios, risk assessments and checklists, covering every eventuality…except a pandemic.

Discussions are coloured by concern for the welfare of family and friends back home. Colleagues politely ask after my family in the UK as the situation across Europe worsens. I think of my parents, on the cusp of their 70s and a number of medically fragile friends. 

‘Soap - an unlikely weapon’

Life here goes on. I write emails advising staff to stock up on food, stop shaking hands and notify us of any underlying health conditions. Most people in South Sudan are daily wage earners who don’t have the luxury of stockpiling food. MAF offer their staff loans so they can stock up on basics before shortages bite and prices inevitably rise. 

The concept of social distancing has not yet entered common parlance and I wonder how people will react to government advice.

We make posters telling MAF passengers to wash their hands and to comply with our security staff who will take their temperature upon entering the airport. Washing hands seems like such a trivial defence – soap, an unlikely weapon in a country where they fight their enemies with guns.

At the airport, our dispatch team wear masks and gloves, but stocks are running low. The logistics team manage to obtain a supply of hand sanitizer at hugely inflated prices, unbeknown to them how long it will last or how much of it we will need.

I reflect on the sobering inadequacies of the country’s healthcare system. The rest of the world is counting their thousands of ventilators, but in South Sudan, there are only a few. 

‘The risk of insecurity could intensify with the virus’ 

My South Sudanese colleagues complain of raising market prices, restaurant closures and their commute to work. The ‘boda boda’ motorbikes, which are the arteries of this burgeoning city, have become casualties of social distancing. Drivers usually carry two or three passengers, now they carry one. Transport has become even more expensive and scarce.  

In South Sudan, some people are so isolated, basic healthcare isn’t even available let alone critical life support. People here rely on basic services provided by humanitarian organisations. MAF help our partners to reach people in need, but in every crisis, foreign workers are the first to go. 

We receive a last-minute request for the emergency evacuation of a medical team. Rumours had reached them of a reprisal attack from ongoing intercommunal violence. Nearby gunshots were enough for their NGO to pull the plug and get them on the next MAF plane out. They’re disappointed that they can’t continue with their work, but at the back of everyone’s mind is the risk of insecurity, which could intensify with the virus.  

Day by day, coronavirus widens its reach.

MAF Flying coronavirus testing kits for WHO in South Sudan

 

Faster testing required to stop the virus in its tracks

MAF takes steps to reduce flying, but allows urgent charters and emergency flights to continue.MAF offers to help the government fly test kits, samples and emergency response teams to wherever they are needed.

I join one of the flights. The pilot and ground ops team exchange glances as they load a cardboard box of test kits onto an aircraft that can carry a ton of emergency food or medical supplies. But the urgent need now is information. The faster the testing, the faster the government can stop this virus in its tracks.

Two hours later we land on a runway that is eerily quiet. The absence of people is unsettling.  A lone figure from the health organisation arrives, disappears and returns a few minutes later with a driver and 4 x 4. The cargo is checked and stowed in the boot. They drive off.

When the South Sudanese government’s Coronavirus High level Task Force make a public announcement later that day, MAF gets a mention. They also announce border closures preventing international flights and passenger transport.

 

Coronavirus is not the only problem

Another day, another MAF flight. I loiter in the waiting room. The other passengers are a Coronavirus Rapid Response Team who will be investigating another reported case. The 30-minute flight will save them six unsafe hours by road.

The team comprises of a friendly doctor, an epidemiologist, a public health officer, a lab technologist and someone from the Ministry of Health. The doctor explains: ‘Our aim is to trace all the contacts of the first case and isolate them from the community to prevent further spread. We’re also looking at the overall preparedness for coronavirus and what we can do to support them.’

‘Hungry people will struggle to fight off the disease’

I wonder how isolating people will work in the South Sudanese culture. The doctor anticipates my question, explaining how staying inside won’t work if most people are daily wage earners, living hand to mouth: “It’s not going to be easy” he sighs.

As the pandemic looms, it’s time to acknowledge that poverty, dirty water, cramped living conditions and malnutrition are underlying health conditions too. As the dry season drags on, a good proportion of people in South Sudan will struggle to eat and hungry people will struggle to fight off the disease.

In South Sudan, it feels like we’re standing on the edge of a precipice, but nobody’s looking down. All we can do is take one day at a time.'