If ever there were any regional efforts in the East African Community (EAC) in which countries of the region coordinated their measures to fight Covid-19 together, the question of whether or not South Sudan would pull any weight in that effort would undoubtedly present itself.
Though the country was the last in the EAC to report a first case of the Coronavirus, it quickly surpassed all of the others in new daily infections. The sense of casualness that the disease was initially greeted with has now given way to a widespread feeling of anxiety, as the virus spreads, infecting senior government officials, including two vice presidents, their families and several national ministers, and killing prominent individuals in government and in the private sector.
On May 26, for example, the country registered a whopping 188 positive cases, the largest in a single day, out of a total 300 tests conducted on that day. Based on these developments, it would not be surprising if the rest of the region sees South Sudan as a potential exporter of new cases to their territories, even long after these countries have curbed the pandemic within their borders. It is already being seen by some as the weakest link in any joint regional efforts, not only offering very little in any collaboration, but possibly becoming a liability.
Recently, a local government official in northern Uganda, close to the border with South Sudan, railed in a recorded message, telling the local people not to allow South Sudanese to come into their country and that any Ugandan found hosting South Sudanese would be jailed or fined. While it was probably within the lock down orders, the message was delivered in a way that smacks xenophobia. But such attitudes are common throughout the region. South Sudanese themselves had a similar posture at the start of the pandemic, when their leaders saw the country as virus-free and that it would only get the virus if foreigners were allowed to enter their country. All this may well have been with xenophobic tendencies, but they were also great public health measures that should have been taken up officially and enforced in ways that did not victimise anyone. Because these were not streamlined as national policies, they were bound to be implemented haphazardly, hence ineffective while diminishing the fervor for regional collaboration.
The way Covid-19 is being managed in South Sudan and the speed at which it is spreading, despite the late onset, gives the neighbours chills. Not only does the country lack a well-coordinated response to the pandemic but its health system has also been totally overwhelmed, health personnel frustrated and a big portion of its population is not observing the physical distancing orders. Additionally, the country’s available resources are not being managed properly as to take care of its poor people who are now made all the more vulnerable by the shifting of focus away from services in an attempt to meet the expenses of the public health emergency responses. This situation is not relieved by the realities of South Sudan being both landlocked and imports-dependent, posing such a serious challenge of screening truck drivers and other essential travellers at border crossings, quite possibly wiping out its economy and making the country the last bastion of the pandemic in Eastern Africa.
Does this mean there is no need for a collaborative effort against Covid-19 within the EAC? As South Sudan is the newest member of the EAC, many of its citizens are still riding in the euphoria of their country’s partial admission into the bloc. Whereas many citizens of the older core founding countries, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, have seemingly become cynical about the organisation’s capacity to rally its member states for collective action on urgent matters affecting them, South Sudanese are still trusting in the EAC. There is a strong expectation that their country’s partial membership in the regional body bears benefits to them, not just in trade, residence and access to educational and health services they have been buying for years in Kenya and Uganda, but more because there is now a global pandemic that is quickly threatening to inflict a massive damage on the young country’s population, and that requires any assistance it can get from its neighbours.
Without a strong national response plan that has a dedicated political figure to rally troops against the pandemic and becoming the face of that fight, South Sudanese cannot be blamed for looking beyond the borders, to the EAC, to some of the region’s strong leaders who have demonstrated visions and credible plans in the fight for their peoples’ lives. They hold out hope that there is still a chance of coordinated actions between the member states, perhaps to the benefit of all. Even if South Sudan has nothing to contribute to a collaboration, it is in the region’s interest to help South Sudan contain this virus, lest that country remains a vector, to the detriment of the whole region.
That said, however, despite pronouncements to the effect that the governments of the EAC member states need to work in concert with one another against Covid-19 scourge, the Coronavirus collaborative response has not materialised beyond communication between the heads of state and the public statements that follow their conversations promising joint efforts on screening and quarantining of people who cross borders to provide essential services and to keep the national economies of the region alive.
In his address to the African Union on April 29, Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta declared that “If we are to defeat this enemy, we need to ensure that through our regional economic communities we are able to communicate, work together and able to deal with cross-border issues because unless we fight together, we will lose together.” Rwanda’s Paul Kagame has lamented the willingness of the region’s leaders to allow bureaucratic procedures to get in the way of working together to fight an enemy that is likely to leave a massive health, social, economic and political impact the region.
There is an EAC Covid-19 Response Plan, unveiled on April 30, discussed and supposedly revamped at the virtual summit of four leaders of the bloc on May 12. But to the extent that this can be called cooperation, it has been limited in scope and seriousness at the political level. It does not go beyond the sharing of case reports to the regional bloc’s Headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania. If the pandemic is going to be contained in the whole region, such that no country is left behind to become the source of the next wave of the Coronavirus spread, what’s blocking collective efforts? Weakest link or not, it seems that it is not the suspicion that some countries would have little to bring to the collaboration table. Instead, it’s both national pride and local political dynamics in each country that almost prohibit the leaders to think and act regionally.
The author is a professor of anthropology at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.