South Sudan – Struggling to convince people that coronavirus is actually here

Published: 14 May 2020

MAF Pilot, Daniel Gill, flies to Ajuong Thok Refugee Camp with cargo from Samaritan's Purse

MAF Pilot, Daniel Gill, has had to adapt to his ‘new normal’ in South Sudan like the rest of us, but what if your community doesn’t believe that the virus is present? Daniel shares how life has changed and how people are responding to the pandemic…  

 'I'm still here in South Sudan. Obviously, we have been affected like everyone else in the world by this pandemic.

In March, the situation developed rapidly. Three of our pilots, who have young children, decided to leave South Sudan so they could provide adequate support for their children in case of illness or emergency. Thankfully, they're all safe and well back in their home countries.  

‘Many foreign NGO staff have left the country’

Slowly, restrictions built up in South Sudan. By mid-March, all borders were closed to international flights. There was only one repatriation flight per week to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, so people could catch a connecting flight back to their home country. 

During that time, many foreign humanitarian and NGO staff left the country, but people here are still in need of malaria medication, access to clean water and other basics. I'm sure this exodus will heavily affect those projects. It’s had a huge impact on MAF’s work in South Sudan. 

‘Travel comes with the risk of spreading the disease’

From mid-April – during the wet season - we were restricted to flying cargo only. Thankfully, we’ve been able to do several flights a week for partners, including Medair, Samaritan's Purse, CARE and Tearfund.  

In this last week, the government has allowed for passenger transport again. Although this is good in some cases, it obviously comes with the risk of spreading the disease throughout the country.

We at MAF have procured adequate supplies of hand sanitiser and adopted new procedures for passenger seating and protection in terms of social distancing and wearing masks, plus special aircraft cleaning. We can then carry people safely without putting remote communities at risk.  

‘For me, life looks a bit different here right now’

As for me, I'm doing alright. A lot of my friends from the NGO world have been told to go home, so life looks a bit different here right now. I’m spending more time at home on the compound.  

I fly maybe two days a week and go into the office one day a week if I have to.

We’ve worked with the government to fly testing kits and samples from remote areas to aid the virus response. I’ve also flown two virus response teams to areas for testing and cleaning. 

‘People don't believe in the virus unless there's a body’ 

Sadly, the attitude towards the situation is the hardest. Many people say that they don't believe the virus is here unless they see a body or people in hospital.  

Unfortunately, most people who may have coronavirus continue to mingle in society. ‘Distancing’ is a very foreign concept in this culture where a person will share their plate of food with four people or more.

Please pray for wisdom for our team to relate good practice to others, so that they may follow them in a sensible manner.  

We want to provide a service to people who are completely isolated, but please pray for MAF to respond well and appropriately, so that we don’t put people at more risk than necessary.  

I am very grateful to still have a job and be able to work outside of my house. It’s a privilege to be able to fly here in South Sudan for people who really need our support.’

At the time of writing South Sudan’s Vice President, Riek Machar - who was on South Sudan’s coronavirus task force – has contracted the disease. He is in isolation with his wife and Defence Minister, Angelina Teny, who also has Covid-19.

According to BBC reports, ten out of the eleven government ministers who were on South Sudan’s coronavirus task force have all tested positive, apart from the health minister.

Essential flights continue, passenger flights resume

An MAF plane full of essential medical supplies from Medair

On the 23rd April, MAF flew 23 kgs of flip charts, posters and coronavirus training materials to the Ajuong Thok Refugee Camp in the north, in a bid to raise awareness about the disease. The camp is home to more than 31,000 people (UNHCR) and comprises of six primary schools, a secondary school, a police station, a vocational training centre and two food distribution centres. 

On the 7th May, MAF returned to the camp with a cargo of food and cement in partnership with Samaritan's Purse. 

On the 8th May, two MAF planes delivered essential cargo to Padeah, Dindin and Maban, also in the north. MAF flew nearly two tons of medical supplies, food (oranges, bananas and biscuits), soap and 20 kgs of locally manufactured face masks.

MAF’s first passenger flight in South Sudan since the government eased their restrictions was on 14th May. MAF flew a medevac patient to Juba for treatment. She had a nasty fall three weeks earlier and had broken her leg.