COVID-19 and conflict threaten health system and ceasefire in South Sudan

unmiss south sudan united nation security council briefing 23 june 2020 covid-19 peace health

UNMISS Chief David Shearer briefing the UN Security Council on the situation in South Sudan.

23 Jun 2020

COVID-19 and conflict threaten health system and ceasefire in South Sudan

Francesca Mold

Juba, 23 June 2020: The impact of COVID-19 risks undermining the fragile health system in South Sudan, causing the death of many more people from preventable health problems than the virus itself, said the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, David Shearer.

In a briefing to the United Nations Security Council, David Shearer detailed the twin threat posed by COVID-19 and escalating conflict in the regions which could unravel the ceasefire.

So far, 1916 COVID-19 cases and 35 deaths have been recorded although limited testing and social stigma is obscuring the true magnitude of the virus.

There is deep concern that the additional pressure of responding to COVID-19 on the already weak health system will disrupt vaccinations, maternal health services and treatment for curable diseases like malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia, resulting in a devastating increase in preventable deaths.

“COVID is going to hit hard. But not in the way that we think. Yes, people will die from the virus, like everywhere else in the world,” said David Shearer. “But the real threat to the people of South Sudan lies in the collapse of the already fragile health system. This could result in many, many more lives being lost – a tragedy that can be prevented.”

The infectious diseases hospital in Juba has been expanded with support from the international community and Ministry of Health. UNMISS has also renovated and equipped hospitals in the 10 states so that COVID-19 patients can be treated. Non-Governmental Organizations are stepping up to staff these facilities, but equipment and expertise is severely lacking.

“We are doing what we can to give limited care to critical patients who previously had nothing. More importantly, these measures are designed to reduce the risk of COVID transmission to other facilities which are treating common but lethal illnesses,” said David Shearer.

“To keep clinics open, it is imperative that health workers have Personal Protective Equipment. Already 86 health workers have been infected. PPE is in short supply and health workers are fearful. Their salaries continue to go unpaid.”

Turning to the peace process, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General detailed positive steps that had been taken, including the formation of the unity government and joint cabinet, the appointment of vice-presidents, and end of a stand-off over the allocation of states.

He said governors should now be appointed to fill a power vacuum and help resolve escalating conflict in places like Jonglei where hundreds of civilians have been killed and 60,000 displaced.

“The political impasse, on top of the COVID lock down, has caused conflict to escalate with violent incidents multiplying four-fold in two years,” said David Shearer.  “This violence can no longer be pigeonholed as “intercommunal”. Fighters in uniform have been spotted suggesting that organized forces may be joining the conflict which risks unravelling the ceasefire.”

Despite some positive progress, David Shearer said the peace process is “faltering” and requires “renewed energy and a reset”.

“A unity government, by definition, takes decisions collaboratively – whether as a presidency or cabinet. This way of working needs to become a habit, not an exception,” he said. “A unity government acts in the best interests of all its people regardless of ethnic identity and should act collectively and swiftly to curtail conflict in the states.”

David Shearer acknowledged that regional partners and peace guarantors are beset by their own COVID-19 struggles but urged them to remain actively engaged in the peace process to maintain momentum.

He ended his speech with a message to the government and people of South Sudan.

“We are here, standing strong with you as we pass through this COVID-19 emergency. The UN, humanitarian agencies and donors have remained and, together, we are saving and changing lives,” he said. “By working together, we can overcome COVID and, also, push the peace process forward so South Sudan can achieve the lasting peace and prosperity it deserves.”