Here in South Sudan, we are closely following the news about the COVID-19 disease. Surprisingly, as of this writing, South Sudan has not had a confirmed case yet. There have been several possible cases, but they were all negative.
However, this poor country is already facing enormous challenges on many fronts, and the arrival of the coronavirus would be devastating.
The government remains in turmoil. The unity government agreement of Feb. 20 led to the reduction of states in South Sudan from 32 to 10 (plus 3 administrative regions). As a result, all ministers and governors were recalled to the capital of Juba and dismissed. This allowed the President to then reappoint new people, but in fact he reappointed many of the same. However, this did not happen in a smooth manner, and to this day there is a power vacuum countrywide. All sorts of groups are taking advantage of this to settle old scores, get revenge, steal cattle and commit acts of violence. Overall, the violence in South Sudan has escalated to alarming levels. We are receiving reports of massacres of 40 to 50 people—men, women and children. It is truly unconscionable.
Due to flooding back in October and a locust invasion that started in February, a large portion of the population is now facing famine. The Nile River passes through the largest swamp in Africa, and hence this area is most difficult to access. Many of those suffering famine are located in this swampy region making delivery of relief supplies quite challenging. So the government has to deal with this even though most leadership positions are not fully functioning at the local, state, or even the national level.
On top of this, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan has just released its latest human rights report, condemning the corruption, which is making millions of funds in relief aid disappear. They have pinpointed the practices and procedures that are being ignored, but the country’s leaders seem not only immune to the suffering of their people but often protect those who are involved. This has been a constant problem since independence in 2011.
It seems that many of the country’s leaders have self-aggrandizement as their only political agenda.
Additionally, the Catholic Church which has always taken a leading role in promoting human rights, anti-corruption and good governance is having its own set of turmoil. The outgoing, retired archbishop of Juba, Paulino Lukudu Loro, was not cooperating with the appointment of the incoming newly appointed Archbishop Stephen Ameyu Mulla. There was much confusion and misinformation, and the result has been rather divisive within the Church community. One priest was beaten and temporarily held by some youth. There were even death threats against several priests, sisters and even the papal delegate and charge d’affairs.
On Sunday, March 22, Archbishop Mulla was installed, but tensions were high and large military, police and internal security presence was everywhere. We understand that the new archbishop will continue to need a security detail for some time until things calm down.
What will happen if—or when—COVID-19 comes to South Sudan remains to be seen. As of Friday, March 20, President Salva Kiir has declared that all schools, teaching institutes and universities are to close. All social gatherings, events and even Masses were banned. However, this edict was promptly ignored the following Sunday as many churches carried on as usual.
What is clear is that at present South Sudan does not have any of the infrastructure, resources, medical personnel or medicines needed to combat the disease. As Foreign Policy magazine noted in a March 23 article, “The country’s civil war has caused its health care system to crumble over the past seven years, making it particularly susceptible to the spread of the coronavirus.”
Social customs here will directly work against the control and containment of the disease. We are all praying that COVID-19 does not come here because this country will be devastated. The majority of the population is already at great risk due to malnutrition, malaria, or other disease.
As for myself, I continue to work as normally as possible. The ministry I work with, Solidarity with South Sudan, has closed all institutions, and students have returned to their homes so workloads have reduced. We are following all international and government protocols.
A few weeks ago, I had stocked up on all the essential supplies—sanitizer, soap, bleach, masks, gloves, medications and plenty of food stuffs. Some of the Solidarity with South Sudan staff have returned to their home countries, but most have stayed at their project sites. We have a very good Comboni missionary doctor who works with us, and we also have nurses on staff. They are helping us cope. They have the contacts to qualified medical personnel if we need it.
United in prayer for the mercy and protection of Our Lord in these difficult times, I send you all my blessings and prayers,