Transcript of SRSG and Head of UNMISS Press Conference on COVID-19

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General/Head of UNMISS, David Shearer, held a virtual press conference on COVID-19 at the mission's headquarters in Juba, South Sudan, today.

7 May 2020

Transcript of SRSG and Head of UNMISS Press Conference on COVID-19

As you will be aware, South Sudan currently has 74 confirmed COVID-19 cases. This means the virus is present in the broader community.

South Sudan is not alone in this respect. It joins nearly every other country in the world with positive cases. And, it is likely that the number of cases will increase.

Many countries have been able to successfully slow or limit the impact of the virus by taking sensible prevention measures. We all know what those are. Physical distancing. Washing our hands to stop its spread. Wearing a mask as a precaution.

Testing is absolutely critical. If we know who has the virus, they can take measures to stop it spreading. There should be no stigma attached to those who test positive. COVID-19 is just as easy to catch as a cold.

But if someone is positive, they need to isolate, so that they do not pass it on to their loved ones, their friends, or neighbours. They have a moral responsibility not to hide or to deny.

We know that South Sudan has a young population and the disease mainly attacks those who are older or have pre-existing medical conditions. Many areas of South Sudan are remote and may be sufficiently isolated to avoid the virus.

But we also know that South Sudan is vulnerable according to the African Centre for Strategic Studies. It cites decades of conflict; poverty; weak health system; millions relying on humanitarian aid; congested urban centers and displacement camps – as factors.

My first message today, is that the United Nations is here with South Sudan. We are not leaving to go back to our homes and families. We have stayed to help support the South Sudanese people as it passes through this emergency.

My second message is that the ongoing work the UN and other agencies do must continue.

If it doesn’t, the ramifications of COVID-19 will be much worse.

We should learn the lessons from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Eleven thousand people died from Ebola but many, many more died from preventable problems like hunger, cholera and malaria.

That’s why the UN’s work must go on despite COVID-19. Food supplies, health services, reconciliation activities to bring peace between warring communities – all these actions make a huge difference in this country and must continue.

Because of movement restrictions, the UN has had to scale down some of its operations like rotating its staff in health centers, patrols and peace-building events.

There’s a balance here. First, we need to take every precaution to avoid the spread of COVID-19. We should base these decisions on good science and international protocols. We don’t need to make them up, they’re all there and are being used all over the world.

Once those measures are in place, all those critical activities – that can be done safely – should continue right across South Sudan.

I say again, if we don’t do that, many more people will die – not from COVID-19 – but from other problems, like intercommunal fighting, hunger and disease.

My third message is that the UN is pouring an enormous amount of resource and expertise into supporting South Sudan’s response to COVID-19. And it will continue to do so.

UN agencies and UNMISS have already made a major contribution, including:  

  • Helping set up the national Public Health Laboratory and rehabilitating labs in Yambio, Nimule and Wau;
  • Providing technical and logistical support for national surveillance, laboratory testing, contact tracing, and case management through WHO; 
  • Prepositioning 12 months of nutritional supplies for refugees and vulnerable families;
  • Setting up community hand-washing sites and giving out soap and buckets;
  • Training health workers and providing tents and solar lighting for hospitals;
  • Running a nationwide education campaign on prevention of COVID-19, including – distributing tens of thousands of flashcards, posters and banners in multiple languages, and broadcasting health messages 24/7 on Radio Miraya;
  • Training journalists and helping set up a media desk at the Ministry of Health; and,
  • Helping expand the John Garang Infectious Disease Unit from 24 to 80 beds.

Much of the focus so far has been on Juba. But, as I keep saying, Juba is not South Sudan. So, UNMISS, from its bases across the country, is stepping up to help in other cities, towns and villages.

UN staff in each state have sat down with their local COVID-19 Task Force to work out individual plans for how the UN can help.

The Task Forces have highlighted that many local hospitals and clinics are in a dire state with no electricity, water supply, leaking roofs, a lack of space to treat people and no protective gear for health workers.

So, we’ve started a major project to tackle this problem together with state authorities.

Around the country, our peacekeeping engineers are renovating hospitals and isolation facilities. We have a couple of examples already.

In Yambio, we cleared and graded the area around the critical care center and are now fixing up the inside of the clinic.

Mongolian engineers have renovated Abiemnhom Hospital in Ruweng, carrying out complex plumbing and electrical work, while on a peacekeeping patrol to deter intercommunal violence. They are currently fixing the isolation facility in Bentiu town.

There is a whole lot more planned in the coming weeks, including:

  • Renovating other hospitals and clinics in Malakal, Juba, Yei, Terekeka, Torit, Wau and Rumbek. We feel renovating hospitals is the best way to move forward so there is a permanent structure which will remain once COVID-19 passes;
  • Providing 100 tents to increase the capacity to treat and isolate people;
  • An extra 500 beds for hospital patients;
  • New water tanks and boreholes;
  • Generators so hospitals have electricity;
  • 45,000 gloves;
  • 20,000 face masks;
  • 5000 safety glasses;
  • 10,000 biohazard bags for contaminated waste;
  • Medicines and thermometers; and,
  • Ambulances to transport patients in some areas.


This is just some of the work that will make a real difference in the fight against COVID-19. I say again, we are committed to doing everything possible to support the Government response.

We are all in this fight together – whether we work for the UN or are members of the local community. No one is immune to COVID-19. Any of us can catch the virus – regardless of our nationality, ethnicity or faith, or what job we do.

So, let’s not point the finger at those who get sick. Instead, let’s pull together and follow the very simple prevention measures so we can protect ourselves and others.

Thank you and we’ll now go to questions that have been sent in advance if there are none from the journalists online.


What challenges is South Sudan facing during COVID-19 and how can actors overcome them?

I think I’ve already covered a lot of this in my opening address. But I think the most important thing to say is that there is no cure for this virus. The only cure is to stop it from happening in the first place - so prevention, prevention, prevention is the key issue. We all know many of the really simple things we need to do – keep two meters away from each other, wash your hands. Why? Because, we don’t even know we are doing it, but our hands touch our face and, if our hands touch our face, then we breathe in the virus and it grows very quickly once it’s in there. Wear a mask if you can. Get tested if you have symptoms. Don’t walk into the hospital. Ring in and say that you have got the symptoms, but don’t walk in and possibly infect other people at the hospital. That’s the best way to address this. It’s prevention and, if we can all do that, then we can keep safe.


What is the role of UNMISS in raising awareness against the spread of the virus?

We are working very closely with the World Health Organization and UNICEF as well as the Ministry of Health who, in combination, are running a major campaign to educate people about how the virus works and how it is spread. And we are supporting those efforts. We are broadcasting news and, I’m sure if you’re listening to Radio Miraya, you will have heard a lot of information about COVID-19 and health messages. They’re going out 24-7 to audiences around the country. We’re also running promo-trucks - you probably have seen them, with loudspeakers. They are going around, again, reinforcing those messages. They’re happening in 10 different states across the country and they’re being broadcast in the local language, so we’ve broken them up so that it’s easier to understand. In addition to that, we’ve had 62,000 little flashcards printed that people can carry around, another 20,000 posters, social media – these are just some of the things that we are doing.


Does Covid-19 affect the peace process? If yes, what can parties do to continue with the implementation?

Look it’s important that it doesn’t stop or prevent the peace process from moving forward. But, clearly, as everybody knows, COVID-19 has been a major distraction, not only here, but across the rest of the world as well. But it’s very, very important that the momentum continues, and we are growing a little concerned that some of that momentum is slowing. In particular, the appointment of governors. It’s particularly important that, across the country, governors are appointed because they are the authority in their respective states. At the moment, we are seeing an increase in intercommunal violence and some of that is because the governors are not there to try and stop it. We also want to make sure that the troops in the training sites continue on and get the right sort of resources and equipment that they need to continue their training. We also need to make sure that the Transitional National Legislative Assembly, the new Assembly, is appointed and starts operating. And we also need to make sure that the government here works as a unity government. So, the idea of defections within a unity government is a curious point because, if you’re all one and in it together, there can’t be defections, because everyone will just be defecting to themselves. So, we need to move forward as a government of unity and purpose for the people of South Sudan.


Regarding internally displaced people living in the Protection of Civilians sites, the government has suggested that it is necessary to allow them to return to their homes in order to decongest the POCs and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Is this the right time to close down the POCs and allow the IDPs to return to their homes and villages?

On this one, we met, probably more than a month and half ago, with the leadership of the POCs. I met with the leadership of POC1 and POC3 here in Juba. Our other staff met with them in the other POCs and we very strongly encouraged people in the POCs to return home. We said, you live in a congested situation, it’s very difficult to have social distancing, and take all the preventative measures if you are inside a POC. So, our advice to you is to go home to your villages, if possible, where there is more space and you can have a better chance of preventing the spread of the virus. In some places, that has happened. In Bentiu, we have seen people leaving. In Wau, there has been probably close to 2000 people who have left Wau. But here in Juba, far fewer people have left. The decision for them to go home. It’s voluntary. It’s up to them to do it. We did provide, through the World Food Programme, at least two months food supply so people could take the food home with them if they wanted to or so they didn’t have to come into town and could minimize their movements. So, I think it’s the best thing for them to do to move home but it’s very much up to them.


What is the situation regarding COVID-19 in the POCs? Are there any registered cases amongst the IDPs so far? How does UNMISS protect them? Are they being tested to determine their COVID status?

As far as we know, there are no cases inside the POC. But, you only know you’ve got it if you have been tested.  So, testing is the critical issue. Are they being tested inside the POCs? They are being tested in what they call “sentinel sites”. This is like health centres or things like that where they will take samples of somebody who comes in presenting with symptoms of the disease.  How do we protect them? Well it is really, again, about information and communication. Maintaining distances; ensuring that people don’t get too close to each other; that they use soap and water to wash frequently. So we have increased the amount of water available so that people can wash more frequently and we also have promo trucks moving around broadcasting messages in the local languages – mainly Nuer – so that everybody gets to hear the same messaging and is able to take precautions.


There were complaints that UNMISS does not provide protection to its national staff, for example, it was reported in some foreign media that UNMISS does not keep social distancing protocols in buses that transport national staff. What is your response to this concern?

That just came in about a month ago from some people who thought there were too many people on the bus. It wasn’t only national staff - it was all staff. We have, since long ago, taken precautions on that so there is a minimum number of people allowed on the bus. To be honest with you, we are not actually moving people around very much anymore because most of our national staff have been working from home. They are still on full pay but are working from home so that they don’t have to come into the office and into the base. These are measures we have taken to stop that.


Can you bring us up to date on the situation amongst UNMISS international staff given that the first case of COVID-19 in South Sudan was an international staff member? Have all staff been tested to determine their COVID status or this is something you would consider?

Just to make it very clear, there were four people, I think, who were identified as being positive – who were tested and were positive. Another 115 people were traced as possibly coming into contact with those four people. They were isolated for 14 days. All of them have been checked, some of them multiple times. Every single one, except the first case, has returned a negative test as a result. The last one had a negative and a positive, so it needs to be reconfirmed again. But we are pretty confident that all of that outbreak has been contained and everybody has done the right thing. So, we are taking super, super precautions to prevent any infection amongst the UN, both for ourselves and ourselves’ sake, but also stopping any spread beyond that. We are working very closely with the Ministry of Health because they have the testing, we don’t have any testing, so we have to work very closely with them, and we cooperated fully to make sure that was completely contained.


What significant changes have been undertaken in the operations of the Mission as a result of the virus?

We have taken a large number of steps from the beginning with staff, weeks ago, when they were coming into South Sudan – they don’t anymore, very few of them are coming in now. We quarantined people, well before the government even asked everybody to quarantine, we decided to quarantine. We have frozen any international staff travel. There has been no rotation of troops since before the COVID-19 was here. Only critical staff movements are now allowed. So, if I have a meeting, for example as I did on Tuesday with the Vice-President, Wani Igga, I have gone and done that. We all wore masks, by the way, when we went in. But other than that, people are only allowed to go to the supermarkets or to the pharmacy and then back to their home again. Inside of the bases, people are working largely from home, connected by computer. Sometimes they come into the offices, but mainly they are mainly there at home. We’ve got handwashing stations all over the base and we stress social distancing so we are all at least two meters apart so that we cannot spread it. We have also limited South Sudanese staff coming in and out of the base as well so there is no spread backwards or forwards between us. A lot of those people are also working from home. With the exception, of course, of Radio Miraya, because they are so important to keep on the air.


Has the Mission seen countries withdrawing their people because of the virus? Or have any staff withdrawn? If so, how many have left as a result?

We have no countries that have left because of the virus. There has been one that just rotated out, that was scheduled to be rotated out. In terms of staff, yes, we have actually said to staff, look if you can go home and work from home, you should do that. It’s better that you are at home with your families rather than being here. So, for example, the head of finance of UNMISS is working from his home in the United States and telecommuting in to do that by computer he doesn’t need to be here so we decided that he should go out, and that’s the same with everybody. Anybody that has a health condition, we have asked that they think about going home. Some people can’t because their borders are closed but, for those people who can work from home and are able to get home, we have suggested that they should go home and move out.

And to the last question coming in by email. There was unhappiness about the UN generally when the first case was announced among its staff. How has that affected UN work in South Sudan?

It was really disappointing actually because, as I said before, anybody can get COVID-19 – it’s like catching a cold. You don’t point the figure at somebody if they catch a cold and, likewise, with COVID-19 as well. There was a lot of anti UN sentiment and, in some ways, we can all weather that, we kind of expect it. I was very pleased there were a lot of people who jumped in and said, look the UN is doing South Sudan a big service, it’s staying here, it’s doing its work saving lives, we should be a bit more tolerant and I want to thank those people who were responsible and who did that. There were a lot of church leaders and other leaders who did that. I was particularly upset about the one person, the woman who was the first, who had a really terrible time on social media. As I say, it wasn’t her fault, she had been in the country four weeks before she contracted the virus, so in normal circumstances, it’s highly unlikely that she brought it with her, so she had a tough time. I want to thank, again, those people who stood up for the United Nations and understood this situation. Thank you.


Communications & Public Information Section

Spokesperson: Francesca Mold