For South Sudan, COVID-19 is simply the newest plague. The world’s youngest country already faces civil war, repression, displacement, economic collapse, climate change, hunger—even swarming locusts. South Sudan’s people enter the fight against COVID under nearly the worst conditions of human development, and with 39 percent of them displaced by warfare. With a government that has been unable to provide even basic services, South Sudanese must rely on their emerging civil society, and international partnerships, to organize much of their response to the pandemic. Yet COVID now threatens vital international help for such grassroots campaigns.

South Sudanese children carry water for their families at sunset in a camp for people displaced by warfare. About 39 percent of South Sudan’s 11 million people have been uprooted amid the country’s violence. (www.geoffpugh.com/Flickr)
South Sudanese children carry water for their families at sunset in a camp for people displaced by warfare. About 39 percent of South Sudan’s 11 million people have been uprooted amid the country’s violence. (www.geoffpugh.com/Flickr)

South Sudan’s 11 million people have a single permanent hospital ward, with fewer than 100 beds, to treat infectious diseases. The few available COVID tests must be flown in from across a country the size of France to the lone laboratory that can process them. The laboratory’s 16 workers this month faced a backlog of more than 5,000 samples. The virus appears to be spreading in South Sudan’s six crowded U.N. camps for displaced people, three of which lack any screening at their gates.

Even as COVID complicates problems of public health, food security, civic space and the incomplete peace process, it provides an opportunity for civic groups to unify South Sudanese around a fight against the disease. With that powerful impetus, civic activists can also cultivate practices that hold the government accountable for protecting and providing for its people—a building block of sustainable peace.

Nonviolent action and a stronger civil society are vital to building a sustainable peace and a responsive, accountable democratic government. Yet a South Sudan-based development group, Impact Cap Initiative, surveyed local civic organizations after COVID’s onset and recorded two-thirds of them having lost funding or support. The survey found local groups seeking flexibility from international donors to adapt their funding under the suddenly changed conditions.

South Sudan’s small but energetic community of civic groups, which are led largely by young citizens, are organizing to spread public health messages and counter misinformation, and to hold the government accountable for mitigating the spread of the virus. They are working to ensure the government respects human rights and refrains from abusing its power.

An artist paints one of many murals that civic activists use to win public support for efforts to halt COVID. (Anataban)
An artist paints one of many murals that civic activists use to win public support for efforts to halt COVID. (Anataban)

One such group is a collective of artists, musicians and writers called Anataban (in Arabic, “I Am Tired”)—perhaps the most prominent peace movement in South Sudan. Since 2016, Anataban has used nonviolent action, organizing social media campaigns, arts festivals and public protests. It builds a vision of a future South Sudan that enjoys safety, accountable governance, reconciliation and respect for human rights.

Now, Anataban is applying its arts-based strategies to combat COVID. Its #WagifCorona (“Stop Corona”) campaign promotes sanitation and physical distancing, presses the government for effective action against the virus and insists that the pandemic is not a justification for authorities to violate human rights.

Anataban has asked businesses and citizens to “donate walls” on which Anataban’s artists can paint murals with public health messages. The group appealed to authorities to release a citizen who was arrested for calling out officials who were violating their own public health guidelines.

Global Nonviolent Action

Anataban’s campaign is part of a global movement of nonviolent activists who have had to temporarily shift their focus toward curbing COVID’s spread. Many activists are adopting “constructive programming” or “mutual aid networking”— methods that build structures of basic service delivery parallel to those of government. This approach helps activists to create legitimacy and power within their communities and exposes poor management, corruption or oppression by governing structures.

Activists also are waging a nonviolent struggle over information. Civic groups are mobilizing their networks to disseminate public health information and counter disinformation. In Brazil, the community-based group Coletivo Papo Reto (Straight Talk Collective) uses social media to expose fake news stories and disseminate factual information in slum communities.

Many activists on human rights and governance have shifted their focus to keep governments from using public health measures to restrict civic freedoms. In Nigeria, the Action Group on Free Civic Space is documenting violence committed by security forces in the name of enforcing rules to curb COVID.

Where governments have dismissed the virus, as in Brazil and Chile, community members have pressed for a greater official response by dramatizing public frustration. Their tactics include mobilizing entire communities to bang pots and pans in unison from rooftops and windows.

COVID in South Sudan

South Sudan’s ability to confront COVID is undermined by the slow, fragile process of implementing the country’s 2018 peace accord. The national leadership for a transitional, power-sharing government among the rival factions was agreed only in February 2020. Now, COVID is complicating the government’s ability to meet critical governance and security benchmarks in the peace accord. While the government recently appointed state governors, other elements of state-level governments remain unaddressed. The virus has prevented mediators from holding meetings that are needed to advance the peace accord’s most politically fraught aspects. It has forced a halt to conferences and workshops that are critical for civil society to build peace at local levels.

Amid this governance vacuum, communal violence, and clashes between the government forces and local armed groups have spiked, nearly doubling (to 1,800) the rate of civilian casualties during January to March from the previous year.  Escalated cattle raids and revenge killings, particularly in Jonglei state, have displaced people into camp-like settings, worsening conditions for COVID to spread.

The government formed a High-Level Task Force on COVID, but had to replace all of its 15 members after they tested positive. While the government initially banned flights and mass gatherings, instituted a curfew and decongested some prisons, it loosened such measures in May—a decision criticized by the South Sudan Doctors Union and even South Sudan’s Health Ministry.

The South Sudanese endure some of the world’s most restrictive limits on political rights and civil liberties—and many community-based organizations are concerned that the government will use the pandemic to further shrink civic space. Civic groups are working to do the reverse—use action against COVID to build a more secure place for civil society. A women’s empowerment organization, Crown the Woman, builds people’s awareness of COVID’s risks and runs a mutual aid network to distribute masks and basic commodities for vulnerable communities around Juba. Junub Open Space is circulating COVID information via bicycles mounted with loudspeakers. The Citizen Task Force, an advocacy consortium, and the South Sudan Youth Organization Coalition work on COVID awareness and mechanisms to ensure that resources allocated for COVID response are rightfully spent. A local fact-checking organization called 211Check helps South Sudanese vet popular stories about the virus. Active Citizen South Sudan works to educate displaced people about the virus.

Groups such as the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization have demanded that the country’s factions accelerate implementation of the peace accord, resisting any notion that COVID might be used as an excuse to delay.

South Sudanese civic engagement also has included recent protests against sexual violence and the killing of unarmed civilians by army troops. A growing movement of women’s groups and other organizations press the government to meet a target, set in the peace accord, of naming women to 35 percent of all appointed government positions.

How to Respond?

Thousand Currents, a philanthropy group that provides strategic support to grassroots groups, offers a set of best practices that can serve as a guide for donors and nongovernment organizations that support civic action to combat the virus. Contextualized for South Sudan, recommendations include:

  • Understanding the South Sudanese context: South Sudan’s religious institutions and leaders are highly respected--so donors and their partners should consider how to ally with them to build public awareness about COVID and design locally led responses to it. The economic lockdowns that many countries are using against COVID are less effective in South Sudan because most people must work daily to survive, and the government lacks the money to provide for citizens during a lockdown.
  • Funding grassroots South Sudanese initiatives: Local initiatives have proven their efficacy in responding to COVID, yet most of their interventions have had little or no outside support. Donors should channel more funding for local, front-line initiatives to maximize impact.
  • Embracing creativity: In South Sudan, civil society has been finding creative means to manage the challenges of COVID. WhatsApp groups have become the de facto means for organizing movement and mobilization of resources on the ground. Many organizations are making soap, masks, and hand sanitizers. Funders should think creatively about how to get resources to partners as they work around the constant changes on the ground.
  • Making connections to long-term strategies: Donors and partners should continue to work on long-term strategies to enhance the resilience of the health care system in South Sudan and improve governance and accountability beyond the pandemic.
  • Addressing staffing needs on the ground: COVID-related travel restrictions have caused many organizations’ international staff members to leave South Sudan and most national staff members to work from home. This presents a challenge, especially in areas of critical humanitarian support for impacted communities. Donors need to design and implement creative, safe ways to ensure adequate staffing and continuity of critical support. For example, COVID protocols that allow for limited, physically distanced gatherings may be considered.

Though the spread of COVID-19 remains unpredictable, the best way to fight it remains in the collective. In South Sudan, “people power” may prove the impetus behind flattening the curve.

Nelson Kwaje is a director of programs for #defyhatenow, a nonprofit organization working in South Sudan and other African countries to build peace and oppose hate speech, notably via social media, that promotes violence. He is a fellow of USIP’s Generation Change program.

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