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Sudan Should Not Let COVID-19 Scuttle Transition

Increase Healthcare Access and Information to the Most Vulnerable

An empty avenue is seen in Khartoum, Sudan, as Sudanese government ordered a nighttime curfew to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, March 24, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Marwan Ali
 
When Sudanese officials announced a series of measures last week to counter the spread of COVID-19, the distress on the health minister's face was telling: this pandemic is the last thing Sudan needs right now. Not even one year after protesters forced former dictator Omar al-Bashir to step down, the transitional government faces serious economic and political challenges that could jeopardize its plans for transition to civilian rule. 

The government's efforts to fight against the pandemic could be crucial to the transition.

As of today, Sudan has seven confirmed cases of infection and two deaths. Given the lack of widespread testing, the numbers could be higher. In the coming weeks, they may overwhelm the already-challenged health sector. 

Sudan’s health sector already faced serious challenges of corruption, underfunding, and mismanagement. Even before COVID-19, there was a shortage of nurses, critical care beds, and reportedly only 80 ventilators in the whole country. Donations of testing kits, masks, and protective gear from Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and the Alibaba foundation could ease the challenge but won't be sufficient.   

Sudanese authorities have tried to act quickly in the face of the spreading virus. On January 28, authorities set up checkpoints to screen travelers at points of entry. On March 14, they closed schools and universities. Two days later, they closed the airports, ports, and land crossings, banned travel between states, and required quarantining for incoming travelers. The latest step was imposing a night curfew on March 23. Khartoum state banned all mass gatherings on March 20. On March 25, authorities released 4,217 prisoners as a precautionary measure to reduce risk of transmission in detention.

But these steps aren't enough. Sudan has a long list of poor and vulnerable populations such as refugees and displaced communities from the country's conflict zones, many of whom live in large camp settings. Half the population lives under the poverty line, and many work in the informal sector, such as tea-sellers and day laborers. They may not have the luxury of social distancing or staying home.  

And restrictions on movement are making the economic situation worse, with commodity prices soaring across the country.  

As authorities struggle to cope, they should focus on the most vulnerable: ramp up health services to crowded and under-serviced urban areas, provide water points and testing facilities, and increase public information about the virus. 

The international donors who pledged to support Sudan's transition should recognize how critical this moment is and step up now. Even if the pandemic has slowed the pace of donor meetings and conferences, these governments need not let COVID-19 become yet another obstacle to Sudan's transition.

 

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