COVID-19, conflict and aid in South Sudan
Natalia Chan and Tim Midgley
As the aid sector in South Sudan shifts rapidly to prepare for and respond to the impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country, Natalia Chan and Tim Midgley reflect on the need to ensure humanitarian responses take into account conflict dynamics.
On 5 April, the Government of South Sudan confirmed its first case of COVID-19. The High-Level Taskforce issued a statement confirming its close collaboration with the World Health Organization and Centre for Disease Control and Protection in contact tracing, and urging members of the public to strictly implement social distancing measures. However, even before the confirmation of this first case, the pandemic was always likely to have wide-ranging ramifications for peace and conflict dynamics in the country. The knock-on effect of global economic decline, regional border closures, threats to food supply chains and falling oil prices will have implications for South Sudan’s fragile economy. If more stringent lockdown procedures are applied, this will further impact livelihoods; as resources become scarce, there is a risk of rising criminality; and as more speculation and fake information spreads, this may inject additional fear and tension into an already complex and insecure environment.
A fragile peace process
The implications for South Sudan’s fragile peace process remain deeply uncertain. The attention of international and regional diplomats who have played an important role in corralling the peace process is likely to diminish, at least in the immediate term, as international leaders focus on their own pressing domestic concerns. At the subnational level, uncertainty also applies. Governors and County Commissioners have yet to be appointed, leaving open the question of who will lead the state, county and local level responses. In areas where there are power vacuums, contested spaces or long running grievances, there is a risk that some groups may seek to exploit the uncertainty for their own gain. How these subnational factors interact with national conflict dynamics will likely play out in complex and unpredictable ways. For the meantime, the government has shown a unified response in activating the High-Level Taskforce on the COVID-19 Pandemic, which has been proactive in issuing daily directives and guidance.
New challenges for humanitarian responders
After more than 30 years of responding to acute humanitarian needs, the aid community is deeply embedded in South Sudan. Aid agencies, including UN and international and national NGOs, have well established coordination mechanisms and widespread presence in remote locations. They are already responding to multiple substantial and overlapping humanitarian crises, which have resulted in severe food insecurity and high rates of malnutrition. They are also used to dealing with profound shocks, like conflict, flooding, drought, or the recent arrival of vast swarms of locusts, and the consequent upsurges in humanitarian needs.
But COVID-19 presents new and unprecedented challenges for the aid system. The sudden closure of borders and cancellation of flights has meant that a lot of staff outside of the country were unable to come back in or had been sent out as non-essential staff in anticipation of travel restrictions and flight cancellations. The ‘usual’ surge mechanisms on which the global humanitarian system often relies to manage emerging crises are unable to kick in due to these travel restrictions and being stretched across multiple contexts. This will put increasing pressure on South Sudanese on the frontline of the response, as well as remaining international staff, to support COVID-19 prevention measures at the same time as delivering essential programmes. The ability of agencies to access remote and often marginalised communities, already a major challenge in South Sudan, is likely to become even harder if internal access by air, road and barge is restricted to halt the spread of the virus. International aid workers are already being stigmatised as inaccurate advice and misinformation is spread on social media and by word of mouth. For both national and international staff, concerns about their families and their communities will contribute to the overall stress of the current situation.
As COVID-19 and its wider implications take hold across South Sudan, communities living in densely packed Protection of Civilian (POC) sites, in which ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ are difficult mitigation strategies, will be particularly vulnerable. In some places, this may contribute to people’s decisions to leave the sites, as has recently been reported in Wau. However, the risks and conflict dynamics vary greatly across POC sites and protection principles must inform approaches – returns should be informed and voluntary. It should not be assumed that people will be safe when they return to areas from which they have previously been displaced, or that doing so will not exacerbate existing tensions over issues such as access to land.
What works in other places may not work in South Sudan
Ensuring that the humanitarian response is conflict sensitive requires that activities and strategies are carefully tailored to the specifics of the context in South Sudan and the local area. While underlying medical principles and technical health approaches may be universally applicable, how they are interpreted and understood differs from context to context. South Sudan has some of the highest illiteracy rates in the world, and there are over 60 different languages spoken across the country. Words may mean different things in different cultures and languages, and considering the implications of this for public information and engagement is critical. Many lessons were learned from the Ebola crisis both positive and negative – from things like working with community networks to dealing with the challenges of mistrust and negative stigmatisation of certain groups and of humanitarian workers themselves. Experiences in diverse contexts, from West Africa, to DRC and Haiti, has taught us that technocratic approaches that do not take into account the specifics of a context can cause serious problems. This applies to different countries as much as it does to different parts of the same country. We also know that the role of national civil society organisations will be critical. Aid projects that build on what is there already, in terms of local groups, networks, programmes and relationships, are much more likely to be effective and sustainable.
Practical considerations for a conflict sensitive response to COVID-19
During times of crisis, the pressure to respond quickly can mean that things like context analysis and conflict sensitivity get overlooked. But these are often the times when they are needed the most to inform an effective response. This is especially important in a country like South Sudan where aid plays a massive role in supporting the economy, providing basic services and maintaining livelihoods. As the aid community in South Sudan shifts to respond to the effects of the pandemic, here are some practical considerations for how to support a conflict sensitive response to COVID-19:
- Effective coordination and information sharing is paramount. At the Juba level, effective coordination which capitalises on specialised experience of different agencies should continue; at field level the role of existing coordination hubs should be maximised (whether related to humanitarian response, essential services or peacebuilding) to integrate COVID-19 information sharing and response – and also inform national decision-making.
- Remote capacity should be put to good use to support staff in South Sudan by providing practical analysis, technical expertise and information. Conflict analysts and conflict sensitivity experts with an existing understanding of South Sudan should be mobilised to support operational agencies. Adapted conflict sensitivity tools may be needed.
- Peacebuilding and development programmes offer important opportunities to build on existing relationships and experience in specific locations. These could be used to, for example, ensure that accurate public awareness messages are appropriately tailored and targeted to communities.
- Donors will need to be flexible and provide support to help aid agencies to rapidly adjust to the emerging situation. They should support agencies to adopt conflict sensitive practices, supporting them to identify the challenges of doing so, and helping to fill gaps in knowledge and expertise in order to overcome them.