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  • Writer's pictureKaty Leach

Campaigning for truth: raising awareness of COVID-19 in South Sudan

Updated: May 18, 2020

As COVID-19 cases rise sharply in South Sudan, the country is also recovering from years of civil war. A new Unity Government was formed in February 2020, with increasing hopes for the future. However, peace is fragile and with the proliferation of arms, inter-communal violence and revenge attacks still flare-up. Armed groups are easily incited to violence: misinformation, false rumours and blaming of 'others' spreads like wildfire.

1.7 million people already live in Protection of Civilian camps run by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). 2.2 million live in refugee camps along the borders in Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, like Mabior a South Sudanese youth leader living in Adjumani refugee camp in northern Uganda. [1]

Social distancing is difficult. Nyumanzi camp, Adjumani

On the 12th of May, the first COVID-19 cases in South Sudan camps were confirmed, with numbers rising daily. Mabior, our youth leader living in one of the Adjumani's camps housing over 200,000 inhabitants, has serious concerns about the spread of coronavirus: 'Here in Adjumani, particularly in the camps, it's risky because people are not following social distance as recommended'. Social distancing is extremely difficult in overcrowded conditions and risk is further exacerbated by limited health facilities.

Mabior explains that it is vital to incorporate peace messages in COVID awareness initiatives: 'Africans look at COVID-19 as a manufactured disease by white people which has created hate speech on racism". He continues: 'Not only that, here in Uganda one was mob to death by the community when he was seen showing symptoms like COVID-19. This issue created division among the community members and the issue almost escated to community conflict.'

Coronavirus arrived on the back of a recent 30% reduction in relief food for refugees in Uganda, as a result of UN funding shortages. [3] Mabior tells us, 'hunger is the major problem we have in the camp at the moment... we are surviving on inadequate food UNCHR give us per month'. In Adjumani, food has been limited to $1 per person per day.

Refugees queue for food, soap and other items at Jamjang camp, South Sudan. © UNHCR/Elizabeth Marie Stuart [4]

Cases of coronavirus in South Sudan have risen sharply in the past week, totalling 236. The virus has spread from Juba to the cities of Yei, Rubkona and the Abyei region.

On the 7th of May, an easing of lockdown measures was announced by President Salva Kiir, in charge of The High-Level Taskforce on COVID-19, including the reopening of small businesses, such as bars and restaurants, the resumption of internal flights and a reduction of curfew hours. The decision was criticised as being ill-timed and dangerous: 'SSDU believes that easing restrictions would encourage transmission to areas where health professionals are not trained and where facilities are not available to quarantine positive cases'. [5] Concerns are that since the easing there has been an 'increase in cases in high speed'. There are now rumours the government may impose a more stringent total lockdown.

Total lockdown is exceedingly difficult: 'You find people are so congested in the markets... they don't follow the precautions due to our cultures, you still find people shaking hands', explains one activist. Another asserts, 'business is just as normal ... only few who take it serious...' 'many people get their daily meals through daily work in the market hustling... how do people get food to the families?' Admittedly, while coronavirus has taken 300,000 deaths globally since 1 January 2020, malnutrition accounts for over 3 million deaths in the same period.[6]

Since March 2020, inter-communal fighting has escalated in several parts of South Sudan [7] including Warrap State, Jonglei, Unity and Northern Bahr el-Ghazal. [8] Just this week, violent clashes occurred in the counties of Yei and Lainya. [9][10] Intercommunal divisions in South Sudan risk being amplified by the current pandemic. There has been a rise in global hate speech and misinformation relating to COVID-19, which typically stigmatises or scapegoats vulnerable and discriminated communities. [11]

'The citizens will best follow the guidelines when our leaders lead by example'

In the last few weeks, several leaders have been criticised for engaging in behaviour which is seen to be contradictory to the social distancing regulations that have been set out. Judith, living in South Sudan, tells us, 'Last month our chief justice came from Dubai, he refused to be screened at the airport'. This caused a widespread outcry as many South Sudanese felt that leaders were not following the regulations, sending a confusing message to the general public. Others have criticised officials for holding a ceremonial reopening of the Juba Nile bridge on the 24th of April, despite a prohibition on public gatherings. [12]

Wani Michael, head of Okay Africa Foundation, said, 'We saw the minister of roads and bridges and other government officials mobilizing a very huge crowd'. [13] He feels their actions were inconsistent with the prosecution of pastor Abraham Chol, who was arrested and sentenced to a month's imprisonment for holding a large religious public gathering. [14] Michael explains, 'That's why some of us are even questioning why are they sentencing Abraham Chol when we know for a fact that there are people, even ministers, who violate the presidential order of social distancing'. [15] The organisation, #Anataban, released a statement arguing, 'The citizens will best follow the guidelines when our leaders lead by example'. [16]

In late-April, Juba-resident Atem Mawut Marac was detained by the Wunrok authorities following a Facebook post in which he complained about "intellectuals" continuing to meet at a local social club despite the ban on social gatherings. [17] Several activists and organisations, including #Anataban, called for his release. [18]

'There are people who don't know what COVID-19 is, how it spreads, preventive measures.’

Recently, UNICEF stated that 58% of rumours about coronavirus circulating in South Sudan are false. [19] Mohamed Ag Ayoya, the UNICEF South Sudan representative, makes it clear, 'Wrong information, such as rumours, are creating noise, preventing the right information to reach people at risk'. He continues, 'worst case, rumours can take lives'. [20] Misinformation can also be dangerous to communities which are at risk of ostracisation or discrimination, as COVID-19 has exacerbated scapegoating and stigmatization towards many vulnerable groups.

Nelson Kwaje, director of programs for Defy Hate Now in Africa, told the BBC, 'the misinformation of COVID-19 is very widespread and it moves very fast'. [21] He explains that incorrect theories about coronavirus move quickly from being spread online to communities without access to the internet. He argues that misinformation is partly a result of traditional methods of communicating being impossible during the lockdown. Disseminating information through conversation and public speaking campaigns are less viable in socially-distanced communities.

Many rumours about COVID-19 are shared with South Sudan's

neighbouring countries, such as Kenya. Source: @ntvkenya

Many of the rumours in South Sudan revolve around the source of COVID-19 and the idea of immunity. 'Many people were thinking that someone cannot get coronavirus in a hot place like Akoba with temperature of 38-40 a day', says one female resident of Akobo town, Jonglei. [22] Judith also explains that 'they believe sickness is faked by the government to get money from donors'. She refers to another widely-held idea: 'It only affects white people'. A young man from Juba described the same rumour, 'The people believed that the disease cannot kill in Africa or in South Sudan because South Sudanese believed that they have strong immune systems'. [23] Perceived cures for the virus have also been widely disseminated, and include ginger, tea leaves and sour fruit. [24] In the last few days, the government was forced to dispel a rumour that the country's coronavirus test results had been fabricated. [25] 'It's just a lot of work to sensitise them to learn the true facts about the virus', Judith asserted.

In camps, misinformation is also widespread. Mabior argued, ‘up to now there are people who don't know what COVID-19 is, how it spread, preventive measures.’

To target misinformation, and to spread awareness, the Ministry of Health, alongside UNICEF, have produced 176,149 posters in 10 different languages and public announcements have been made through 42 radio stations, in languages appropriate to each targeted community. [26] Several other organisations have created initiatives to measure and record rumours in South Sudan. The Rumour Tracking Subcommittee, a joint action of UNICEF and the Communication and Community Engagement Working Group (CCEWG), has been collecting online-data to capture unverified information about coronavirus which is being shared. [27] The organisation 211FactCheck offers verification of online information in South Sudan. [28]

Other organisations are recognising the need to adapt their communication methods to the current regulations, as social interaction must be limited. Kwaje explains that efforts to raise awareness are therefore being transmitted through other channels, like social media, Whatsapp and radio. Kwaje notes that these are the same communication channels in which the misinformation has been disseminated in the first place. [29] Judith explains how her organisation is 'trying to conduct sensitization within communities through radio talk shows and door-to-door too'. Much of the work both Judith and Kwaje recount involves reporting and highlighting existing myths.

Active Citizen South Sudan team member puts up posters about COVID-19. Source: Twitter @ActiveSudan [30]

Refugee-led West Nile Community Development Centre is also working hard to replace false information about COVID-19 with truths. Based in West Nile, Uganda, 'Hagiga Wahid' (Juba Arabic for 'One Truth') is a new campaign they have launched, modelled on a similar Kenyan campaign 'Una Hakika' by The Sentinel Project. [31] Hagiga Wahid is a free and anonymous SMS text messaging service which allows subscribers to report rumours through text and voice call. These rumours are then verified by the project's large team of contacts, which include community leaders, local trained ambassadors, local authorities and grassroots organisations as well as larger NGOs. Information about these rumours is then disseminated back to relevant communities via text messaging and further spread through word-of-mouth by local ambassadors.

Some organisations are initiating creative ways to counter misinformation. Anataban Arts Initiative, based in Juba, are using poetry, comedy, music and wall murals to publicise the government regulations, personal precautions and direct people towards credible sources of information about the virus. This is part of their campaign #WagifCorona (stop corona). [32]

Anataban artist works on mural in Juba, South Sudan. Source: Twitter @RadioTamazuj [33]

Mabior tells us about the work he, along with other community leaders, is doing to combat misinformation and to raise awareness among South Sudanese refugees in Uganda. Mabior is part of a group of youth leaders that Rights for Peace trained in October 2019, in a series of workshops on countering identity violence. These workshops explored the roots of divisions between ethnic groups and communities in South Sudan and looked at opportunities for peace-building.

Mabior is running an awareness campaign to educate camp residents and inspire peace during COVID-19. They are producing posters which will be disseminated across multiple camps: Nyumunazi refugee camp, Ayilo camp, Pagirinya camp and Baratuku camp, all which fall into the Dzaipi region of Northern Uganda. The posters are being produced in a cyber enterprise which is owned by several South Sudanese youth refugees. They plan to spread messages that promote peace through a public speaking campaign, alongside the posters. This organisation is working closely with community leaders to brief them and establish their roles as leaders in furthering education on coronavirus in the camps.

Mabior seeks support of community leaders for COVID-19 awareness campaign in Adjumani camps, Uganda, 05/2020

Despite ongoing violence between communities, a heavily impacted economy and pressure on health and medical facilities, South Sudanese organisations and individuals are fighting hard for truth and awareness during the coronavirus pandemic. At Rights for Peace we are continuing to support our in-country partners, like Mabior, to combat misinformation and facilitate education on COVID-19 in both camps and the wider community.

Help to support us and sponsor the work of Mabior and others in South Sudan:

Recent pictures from Mabior, documenting their awareness campaign in Northern Uganda



[13] IBID.

[20] IBID.

[23] IBID.

[24] IBID.

[33] IBID.

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