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COVID-19 Threatens South Sudan’s At-Risk Populations

Government Measures Should Address Those Displaced, Detained

Residents of the Mangateen camp for the internally-displaced line up to get water from a borehole, on the outskirts of the capital Juba, South Sudan, January 22, 2019. © 2020 AP Photo/Sam Mednick

South Sudan has issued measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, notably a ban on inbound and outbound flights, self-paid mandatory quarantines, and a ban on mass gatherings. While important, these measures do not address the complex reality in South Sudan, a country with limited health services struggling to emerge from six years of civil war and with many population groups at heightened risk – including displaced people and prisoners. 

More than 1.5 million people remain internally displaced as a result of conflict, including close to 200,000 living in cramped United Nations Protection of Civilians’ sites across the country. Thousands who fled recent intercommunal fighting are already in dire need of aid, including sanitation and medical care.

Meanwhile, South Sudan’s prisons and its National Security Service (NSS) detention sites continue to be overcrowded, unsanitary, and with inadequate medical care.

These are not contexts in which social isolation alone can be reasonably counted on to limit the spread of the virus.

The government, together with the UN and humanitarian aid groups, should ensure public outreach on how to combat the virus and ramp up sanitation and health services, especially in displacement sites, prisons, and detention facilities. The public needs vital and accurate information on the virus and the press should be able to report on it freely. 

All restrictions impacting peoples’ freedom of movement and other basic rights should be necessary and proportionate. Quarantines, for instance, should be imposed in a safe and respectful manner and be voluntary where possible.

The government should also ensure that travel restrictions do not disrupt already strained ongoing humanitarian relief efforts in the country, or their supply chains. Now more than ever, aid groups need unrestricted access to populations in need.  

Authorities could also take immediate steps to alleviate the risk to populations in prisons and detention facilities.

Prison authorities could release pretrial detainees and those who have served most of their sentences. They can prioritize older people and those with pre-existing health conditions who should avoid possible exposure. Such steps could go a long way to protecting the health of prisoners and guards.

The government could also seize this opportunity to make long overdue reforms to the National Security Service (NSS) and close its detention centers. The NSS detains people, often for years without bringing charges or holding trials, in violation of international norms. Conditions in NSS detention facilities are even worse than regular prisons.

“There was no space even to stretch. The water for drinking was not clean. We were sleeping next to a toilet. Urine and fecal matter were flowing where we used to sleep,” a former detainee told me about his experience in NSS detention in a Juba facility.

Through such measures, South Sudan’s new unity government could achieve two important goals: upholding basic human rights and taking steps to responsibly contain a global health threat.

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