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The novel coronavirus is not changing the world. While the virus itself fails to discriminate between the poor and the powerful, its effects are mediated by unequitable social structures and economic hierarchies. These are not crumbling but are rather being reinforced through quarantines and lockdowns. Such responses are immobilizing the structures that the most vulnerable use to prevent crisis, resulting in Covid-19 overwhelmingly afflicting those who are already suffering. In countries suffering from conflict and hunger, such responses are likely to entrench class divisions between political elites and the suffering majority. The Covid-19 response in South Sudan is a clear example.
On Tuesday 28 April, South Sudan’s Covid-19 taskforce, led by Vice-President Riek Machar, announced that the country had 34 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. With this announcement came further measures designed to halt the spread of Covid-19, including the immediate closure of all tea and shisha stalls, a 7pm-6am curfew, and the closure of all bars. These measures follow on from earlier government decrees that banned large gatherings, suspended international flights, limited all international and inter-state travel, and shut down all non-essential service providers, amongst other measures. On 7 May, with the number of cases in South Sudan increasing rapidly (as of 12 May, there are 174 confirmed cases), the Presidency announced an immediate relaxation of the lockdown, with the beginning of curfew moved to 10pm, the re-opening of shops and restaurants, provided that social distancing is followed, and the promise that internal travel within South Sudan shall resume soon.
Covid-19 is highly likely to cause significant mortality in South Sudan. If the spread of the virus follows patterns that have occurred elsewhere in Africa, cases in South Sudan could be in the hundreds of thousands in June. The country has a young population, and thus, like elsewhere in East Africa, can hope to avoid the shocking death rates amongst the old that Italy and other Western European countries have witnessed. Yet, much is not yet known about how Covid-19 will interact with other comorbidities that are prevalent in South Sudan such as malaria, hepatitis, yellow fever, measles and malnutrition. Across Africa, high levels of TB, untreated HIV, diabetes and hypertension may all put people at increased risk of severe Covid-19. To combat these risks, the South Sudanese government introduced draconian measures that are unlikely to be successful.
The lockdown measures imposed on 28 April and partially lifted on 7 May effectively import into South Sudan the approach to the virus that has been taken by much of Europe, and ignore alternative strategies that might be feasible in this context. There are two possible justifications for ‘lock-down’. In China, the government effectively erected a cordon sanitaire around Hubei and implemented firm restrictions on movement within this cordon, successfully containing the virus. In Europe, lockdown has attempted to ‘flatten the curve’ – slow the spread of the virus so that medical services do not become overwhelmed, due to an excessive demand, for instance, on intensive care units.
Neither of these conditions pertain to South Sudan. Confirmed Covid-19 cases in South Sudan are not restricted to a single area, so there is no dangerous population to isolate (cases have rather first appeared in Juba and in the border areas with Uganda, with unconfirmed cases now apparent in clusters across South Sudan). Plus, there is inadequate state capacity to meaningfully implement lockdown on the scale that we have seen in China or South Korea – places where it has worked effectively. Even at the best of times, state capacity would fall far short of what is required for such measures, and currently, while the transitional government is still being appointed, there are no county commissioners and serious ambiguities over sub-national authority. Any implementation of lockdown is likely to be piecemeal, focused on the poor, and aggravate already-existing state–society tensions.
South Sudan’s medical infrastructure is also not sufficiently equipped for a strategy of ‘flattening the curve’ to be meaningful; in a country with five vice-presidents, there are only four ventilators. The UN has expanded the bed capacity from a few dozen in hospitals in major cities, but even this small increase is unlikely to be matched with even basic equipment and health professionals. At the same time, South Sudan’s limited medical infrastructure has suddenly become of great interest to the country’s elite. In prior years, this elite sought help abroad. However, with the closing of the borders of regional neighbours like Uganda and Kenya, it is unclear whether the elite can still seek to be treated elsewhere, and thus, the state of South Sudan’s own infrastructure has become of pressing importance.
At the same time, according to many South Sudanese across the country, the lockdown is itself a function of the leadership’s fear of a virus that fails to distinguish between rich and poor, especially when medical infrastructure is available to neither. The lockdown primarily functions to try and protect the political elite, at the cost of South Sudanese society, which cannot easily bear the costs of lockdown. South Sudanese also accuse their leaders of setting up the Covid-19 Taskforce to divert aid for their own private benefit. This is already happening in Somalia and threatens to have serious, violent political consequences. South Sudanese accusations are driven by the political elites’ past indifference to previous problems faced by the country. All over the world, the implementation of lockdown orders has revealed stark inequalities between wealthy classes with sufficient resources to isolate and socially distance, and a class on which they depend: those who do not have the financial resources to isolate and whose labour is necessary for society to function. In South Sudan, this divide is particularly egregious. The only people in South Sudan even potentially able to endure a lockdown are the political class.
It is thus darkly ironic that some of the political elite are acting as if the rules do not apply to them. Last month, the pastor Abraham Chol was arrested for violating the order banning large gatherings, and sentenced to a month in prison. However, in footage widely shared on South Sudanese social media, the military and police officers present at his trial were themselves not obeying social distancing instructions. Further images have circulated of SPLA-IO defectors to the government gathering in defiance of the government’s own order, and not obeying social distancing requirements. Some military leaders have refused to let their children be tested or quarantined. Murle leader David Yau Yau flew to Juba on 26 April, defying the ban on inter-state movement. While the lockdown has been imported into South Sudan to protect the elite, it is unlikely to be successful. As we have seen, it is the elite themselves who are most likely to travel abroad, break social distancing requirements, and become the main vectors for viral transmission.
Rather than these measures blocking transmission of the virus, it is likely that the reaction to Covid-19 will be as deadly as the disease itself, especially as it increases vulnerability to hunger and other possible comorbidities. A friend in Western Bahr el Ghazal (South Sudan) recently told us that he was suffering from Covid-20. We queried: surely you mean Covid-19? No, he corrected us, Covid-20, that is what we are calling hunger these days. ‘It is a virus worse than Covid’. Lockdown measures are putting people out of work, and putting increased pressure on scarce resources. Covid-20 is not bringing about a new world, but is reproducing and intensifying existing situations of hunger and inequality.
Already, the closure of the land border with Uganda and other international restrictions has seen food prices spiral in April 2020, with the price of a kilogram of maize in Juba going from 159 SSP to 298 SSP. At the same time as food prices are increasing, stay-at-home orders are ripping through South Sudanese society’s capacity to provide for itself. Even if everyone – including the elite – followed the government’s mandated rules for lockdown, it would still not be a viable strategy for South Sudan. There is not a sufficiently developed service economy that would allow people to do work-at-home jobs. Indeed, the measures announced on 28 April, including the ban on selling tea, are likely to hit some of the poorest and most disadvantaged members of South Sudanese society, as they have in neighbouring Uganda. At the same time, there are not sufficient government resources to engage in the sort of income replacement measures we have seen work in Canada or Denmark, for example.
The partial lifting of the lockdown on 7 May is welcome, and will alleviate some of the worst consequences of these measures, by allowing tea sellers to work and businesses to resume. It should also allow humanitarians, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, to bring urgently needed health workers to the places most in need. However, the incoherence of South Sudanese policy comes with its own risks, as allowing inter-state travel to resume might bring a wave of people leaving urban areas such as Juba, where food and rent are expensive, and returning to rural areas, risking the further spread of Covid-19.
In addition, the disturbances created by the lockdown measures are likely to intensify the threat of other illnesses, such as malaria, cholera, malnutrition, and measles, as resources become scarcer, international NGOs find it more difficult to move around and replace staff, and already-minimal health services become even harder to access. The situation remains particularly difficult in the Protection of Civilian sites (PoCs). Conditions in the PoCs, in terms of population density and the impossibility of social distancing measures, are akin to the conditions in prisons, and it is in prisons that we have seen particular challenges during Covid-19.
The very structure of South Sudanese society makes lockdown and social distancing very difficult to implement. In South Sudan’s urban areas, much of the population lives in sufficient density that social distancing is not possible; there is also not sufficient clean water, in many places, for handwashing to be a viable strategy, and there are acute shortages of masks. People also rely on the daily collection of water and purchase of food, forcing regular interactions. There is no social basis for quarantine to occur.
In many rural areas, in contrast, where low population densities function as their own sort of social distance, forms of work and living require close contact between members of society. The deep social and economic connections between towns and rural areas also make it impossible to isolate and protect rural areas. Elites often move between rural areas and the towns, and these are precisely the people which police and soldiers cannot restrain. The best hope rural areas have for protection from Covid-19 is the early intensification of the rainy season that interrupts rural travel by road and by air.
As elsewhere in the world, Covid-19 is not bringing about a ‘new normal’ but rather intensifying already existing trends in society. Covid-19 presents opportunities to authoritarian governments throughout Africa to extend their control of society. The same is true in South Sudan. The lockdown measures have further concentrated power in the hands of the security state in South Sudan, which has become increasingly powerful in recent years. Lockdown will also intensify the separation between a Juba-based political elite class with access to resources and the rest of the country, increasingly immiserated and struggling for basic resources. The measures announced on 28 April will do nothing to stop the spread of Covid-19, but may increase the spread of the sentiment that the political elite in Juba is acting only in its own interests.