Photo credit: Church and Development
Photo credit: Church and Development

“People are living a normal life”: challenging the myths of COVID-19 in South Sudan

Peacebuilding organisations are at the heart of the response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in South Sudan. We spoke to our partners, Church and Development and the Organisation for Children’s Harmony, about how they are raising awareness of the pandemic and continuing to work with communities on safety and security concerns.

“There is a common question being asked around the streets: ‘Is it better to die of hunger or to die of COVID-19?’” said David Achiek, Programme Coordinator for Church and Development (C&D) in the town of Bor, South Sudan.

Despite the relaxation of preventive measures to respond to and contain the spread of COVID-19 in South Sudan in May, many people are unable to work and make a living due to fear of infection. Across the country, people are having to make a choice between risking infection to put food on the table, or staying at home and struggling to eat. “COVID-19 is negatively impacting each and every person,” said David. “It’s bringing fear and it’s not clear when it will end.”

C&D is one of many civil society organisations in South Sudan that have adapted their work and are playing a critical role in the response to COVID-19. One initiative they support is ‘Coronavirus Response Bor’, a community awareness raising project led by young volunteers. So far, the group has raised over 500,000 South Sudanese pounds (approximately USD$3,125) from community members for door-to-door outreach, radio talk shows, and using public speaker systems to talk about the dangers of COVID-19, its symptoms and how to reduce the risk of infection.

“COVID-19 is something we have to live with, and we must use all of our efforts together to understand it and make sure the communities we live in also understand it,” explained David. With misinformation about COVID-19 rife in South Sudan, challenging myths is essential to help halt the increase in cases – which officially stands at 1,807 as of 16 June, although numbers are likely to be much higher given the country’s limited testing facilities.

With many schools in Bor and other parts of South Sudan closed, young people are not engaged in education which makes them more vulnerable to becoming involved in criminal activities. Cases of boys dropping out of school altogether have also increased. The government has introduced radio teaching, but not all schoolchildren have access to a radio so are missing out on education. “It means a lot of children will be lost,” said David. In response, C&D are looking to supplement radio teaching with supporting teachers to go directly to the homes of young people, while observing social distancing, for education and COVID-19 outreach.

A group of volunteers raising awareness of COVID-19 in Bor. (Photo: Church and Development).

Adapting to multiple crises

“The general mood is that COVID-19 doesn’t exist in South Sudan,” said Laker Joyce Patra, Head of Programmes at the Organisation for Children’s Harmony (TOCH), based in Juba. “People are living a normal life as if there’s nothing going on.” When the lockdown was lifted, and businesses, bars and restaurants reopened, many people thought this signalled an end to COVID-19.

From public speaker systems to posters, most of the messages around the pandemic from the government and World Health Organisation are passed on to communities in English, rather than in Arabic or their local language. TOCH is filling this critical gap in some of the areas where they work – including Kuajok, Warrap State and Rumbek, Lakes State – by raising awareness in the languages people actually understand. “When we did our radio programme, communities were able to call back and ask questions or give comments,” said Laker. “Many were saying that was the first radio show organised in their local language and were asking us to let these messages reach other communities who do not have access to radios.”

Both C&D and TOCH have been working in partnership with Saferworld for over five years, supporting community groups to discuss their security concerns and find peaceful ways of addressing them. With the outbreak of COVID-19, both organisations are adapting their approaches. Abiding by World Health Organisation guidelines, the community groups, usually made up of upwards of 30 members, are being broken down into smaller meetings of five or six and observing social distancing guidelines. “We provide hand wash facilities at meeting venues and now start meetings by conveying preventative measures on COVID-19 to community members,” said Laker.

The meetings offer a valuable space for community members to continue coming together and collectively addressing any problems they face, despite the pandemic. But it is also a chance to share information and discuss the common challenge of COVID-19. “By bringing people together and having dialogue on other issues, community members can share messages related to the dangers of COVID-19, how to identify it and how to prevent it,” said David.

Although fewer women have so far been infected by COVID-19, according to South Sudan’s Ministry of Health, they are vulnerable to the pandemic in other ways. In some of the areas where TOCH works, women´s independence is often restricted by their husbands, meaning that they cannot decide to buy soap, face masks and hand sanitisers. This affects their ability to protect themselves from getting the virus. Women in polygamous marriages face a greater risk of becoming infected, as they have little or no control over what protection measures are in their household. “Women see hygiene and sanitation as extremely important,” said Laker. “Given that access to water is now limited by the high demand, this really affects women who are trying to promote hygiene and sanitation at home.”

The psycho-social implications of living in a conflict-affected country like South Sudan have been further exacerbated by COVID-19, and by the economic fallout that has come with it. This has left many women with no economic or psycho-social support, as these services are not being provided by the government. TOCH works closely with communities to organise sessions to strengthen women’s wellbeing and provide skills training to improve economic opportunities. C&D are complementing these efforts by creating women-only spaces in communities where women can share their experiences and ideas on livelihood opportunities.

TOCH leading a COVID-19 awareness raising session for community members in Yirol, Lakes State. (Photo: The Organisation for Children's Harmony).

Supporting a lasting response

Alongside COVID-19, some communities in South Sudan are facing the threat of inter-and intra-communal violence. Measures to restrict freedom of movement across the country to slow the spread of COVID-19 hamper organisations like C&D and TOCH from accessing areas experiencing violent conflicts.

Conflict also impacts access to information. Community and door-to-door outreach becomes much more dangerous for staff, volunteers and community members. “In the event of conflict in an area, it means that the area becomes inaccessible – so information would only be linked to the media which is the radio,” said Laker. “If there is peace, there will be increased access to information on COVID-19.”

Information is important and can prevent people from going hungry, but food supplies are even more critical. Food prices have risen dramatically as the closure of borders with neighbouring countries has affected the supply of goods, including food, into South Sudan. Alongside their immediate humanitarian concerns, people need support in adapting their livelihoods to cope during COVID-19 and provide for themselves and their families. “We need to support people with food while they’re in their houses,” said David. “We need to support them to work for themselves, like helping them produce their own food while in lockdown.”

Civil society organisations like TOCH and C&D are at the forefront of the response to the conflict – and now COVID-19 – in South Sudan. Their work is critical and needs to be sustained.

The international community in South Sudan can play a role by supporting and accompanying South Sudanese civil society organisations, for example, through support to intensify the awareness raising campaigns, and providing access to food, hygiene and sanitation kits for TOCH and C&D to distribute to the most vulnerable people during their door-to-door outreach. “We need funds so the information can reach every last member of the community,” said Laker.

COVID-19 is a global health crisis. Peacebuilding organisations, such as TOCH and C&D, have been working on crises in the fragile environment of South Sudan for years. By doing so, they have the experience and expertise to respond effectively.

Tensions have been exacerbated in some communities due to COVID-19 and in a context like South Sudan violence can easily spill over and have devastating consequences. “We need to make sure community cohesion is maintained, because when the hunger comes, you find some communities may attack or loot from other communities,” said David. “As we fight COVID-19, we also need to support communities to help them live a good life, harmoniously.”


The work referred to in this piece is part of a project on peace and resilience in South Sudan, funded by the European Union.