JUBA, South Sudan (AP) – It started with a dry cough, weakness and back pain. For Reagan Taban Augustino, part of the small corps of health workers in South Sudan trained in treating COVID-19 patients, there was no doubt about what he had.
Days later, barely able to breathe, the 33-year-old doctor discovered how ill-equipped his country is to the corona virus pandemic: none of the public facilities he tried in the capital Juba had oxygen supplies until he reached South Sudan only permanent infectious disease unit, which has less than 100 beds for a country of 12 million people.
It took over an hour to let him in. “I nearly died at the gate,” he told The Department’s Associated Press last week.
The pandemic is now accelerating in Africa, the World Health Organization says. Although the continent had more time than Europe and the United States to prepare before the first case was confirmed on February 14, experts feared that many of its health systems would eventually become overwhelmed.
South Sudan, a country with more military generals than doctors, has never had a fighting chance. Five years of civil war and corruption have taken away much of the health system, and nowadays non-governmental organizations are most concerned. Almost half of the population was hungry before the pandemic. The deadly insecurity continues, and a grasshopper outbreak arrived just weeks before the virus arrived.
When world leaders say the pandemic isn’t over until it’s over everywhere, they’re talking about places like South Sudan.
The United Nations says the outbreak of the country is growing rapidly, with nearly 1,900 cases, including more than 50 infected health workers, more than 30 deaths, and no way of knowing the actual number of infections. At one point, several members of the COVID-19 task force tested positive, including Vice President Riek Machar.
“It can get out of hand at any time,” said David Gai Zakayo, a physician with the Action Against Hunger aid group.
“The groups we treat are malnourished,” said Zakayo. “My major concern is that if the virus starts to spread to the groups we treat, it will be a disaster.”
In the only lab in South Sudan to test for the virus, supervisor Simon Deng Nyichar said the team is plowing from 16 days to 16 hours a day due to a backlog of more than 5,000 tests. About 9,000 samples have been tested since early April, when the country was one of the last in Africa to confirm a coronavirus case.
With a shortage of materials, testing is largely limited to people with symptoms of COVID-19. It can take weeks to receive results, “creating distrust in communities and resentment against contact tracers,” the Ministry of Health said last week.
Three lab workers have been infected and recovered, Nyichar told the AP. “This is the nature of our work. We are not afraid of the disease. ‘
With the long hours, they work in pairs to stay sharp. “It is a must for everyone to have a buddy as a helper to follow all the steps on the dos and don’ts, otherwise we would have all infected ourselves,” he said.
Although aware of the dangers, the people of South Sudan are still convincing.
The government’s release of locking measures last month was “seen as an indication that the disease is not present in South Sudan,” the Ministry of Health said. Bars, restaurants and shops are open after people said they were more afraid of hunger than disease.
Some people have died pending the arrival of rapid response teams, the ministry said. And this month it stopped issuing “COVID-19 negativity certificates”, referring to the lies of fake certificates – especially around Juba International Airport.
Meanwhile, the virus has spread to more rural areas, including one of the United Nations-managed inland camps, where more than 150,000 civilians are still sheltering after the civil war in South Sudan ended in 2018.
There were more deaths in that camp in Bentiu from respiratory infections, WAMala Joseph, the official WHO official, told reporters last week, although it is not clear whether they came from the virus. Testing is difficult because all monsters have to be flown to the capital. “This is a very vulnerable population,” he said.
Three out of six camps have no virus screening at the gate, according to a document from this month’s UN migration agency. One camp has no facility to isolate the sick and the other only has one if a generator is installed. Under preventive measures for the two camps in Juba, home of 30,000 people, state: “Facial masks will be distributed in the coming weeks.”
Meanwhile, “our hospitals were filling up,” Wolde-Gabriel Saugeron, who heads the International Committee of the Red Cross team in Bor, wrote last week. “COVID-19 means we need to create more space between our hospital beds, reducing the number of people we can accommodate in our wards by 30%.”
The pandemic also worsens what was already a major problem in South Sudan: hunger.
Most border crossings are closed and food prices in the markets have skyrocketed. Now that the rainy season has started, transport and storage is becoming more difficult.
More than 1.5 million people in South Sudan are newly vulnerable, including the poor in the city who had not previously received aid, the UN Humanitarian Service said last week.
“I can’t say a famine, but I can say that COVID-19 will make the situation worse,” said Kawa Tong, health and nutrition manager of the CARE aid group.
She knows that the country has faced a long and winding path to emerge from multiple crises, starting with the progress of the peace agreement that ended the civil war. Security should improve, people would find the confidence to return to their homes and grow their crops, and hunger would drop.
But now of course there is the pandemic and Tong has no idea when or how it will end.
“People are overwhelmed,” she said. “People are afraid.”
Anna reported from Johannesburg.
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