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Sudan’s coronavirus state of emergency brings mixed blessings

March 19, 2020 at 11:05 am

Civil defense team with protective suits disinfect the streets and workplaces as a precaution to the coronavirus (Covid-19) on 9 March 2020 [Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency]

The Sudanese government is to be commended for its swift response to the coronavirus pandemic, there being just one death to date, and 19 cases of infection. Schools and universities have been closed since Monday and the transitional government has suspended international flights to and from the capital as well as a number of domestic air services.

The measures will help to save lives given that Sudan’s health service is woefully ill-equipped to deal with patients with acute symptoms. The country has fewer than seven doctors per thousand people and only 1 per cent of patients have some form of health insurance. Most are unable to pay the fees charged by private and public hospitals.

However, the snap decision to close the borders has stranded Sudanese citizens around the world. In Istanbul, 37 Sudanese nationals refused to disembark from a Turkish Airways plane for 14 hours until the airline gave reassurances about accommodation after they left the aircraft. In a video streamed live on social media, Turkish officials are seen trying diplomatically to get the passengers to leave. Eventually, the Sudanese Consulate intervened and confirmed that Turkey would permit the Sudanese to enter Istanbul. This wasn’t true, apparently, and reports suggest that some passengers were manhandled once in the terminal, but their fate isn’t known.

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Back in Sudan, 40 people returning from Egypt broke out of a makeshift holding facility after refusing to undertake a 14-day quarantine. While some citizens in Sudan have accepted that the virus poses a threat, many remain unconvinced that the country even has a problem with Covid-19, believing that the extraordinarily high temperatures make it difficult for it to survive and spread. Health Minister Dr Akram Al-Tom cast doubt on the presence of the virus in Sudan when he told the media that the person who died was first found not to have Covid-19 but tested positive after being examined posthumously.

As of Wednesday, UNICEF has made $370,000 available for Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) supplies for use in points of entry to Sudan as well as in ambulances. The UN body has delivered one consignment of supplies and is preparing to make further deliveries. An additional $200,000 has been set aside for public information communications to slow the spread of the outbreak. Culturally appropriate messages will be disseminated using print and digital means. However, disparaging rumours about the transitional government’s efforts suggest that the declaration of the state of emergency was fuelled by the government’s need for UN aid and to present a positive image of itself as a caring, responsible authority.

Generally, the Sudanese are doing little to protect themselves against the virus, either because of suspicion about its presence or their inability to afford the preventative measures suggested by the government. The cost of face masks has risen ten-fold from $5 to $50 in the past week, for example, and despite a call by the authorities to restrict meetings in public places and follow “social distancing” advice, life continues almost as normal under extremely harsh economic conditions.

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On Monday, demonstrations were held against the transitional government’s decision to delay the investigation into the way that the sit-in protest on 3 June last year was broken up violently by the police, a move which led to the loss of more than 100 lives. The absence of justice for the families of those who lost their lives in the 2018 December revolution and the poor handling of the economy appears to have broken the trust between the transitional government and the Sudanese people to the extent that some believe that the coronavirus measures announced, school closures and restrictions on the size of gatherings are simply being taken to reduce the effects of the economic crisis; that university students and some office workers who would normally take hours to reach their offices have simply been given a “convenient” holiday.

Sudanese protesters burn tyres and set up barricades on roads leading to the army headquarters after the army began attacking demonstrators in Khartoum, Sudan on 3 June 2019 [Stringer/Anadolu Agency]

Sudanese protesters burn tyres and set up barricades on roads leading to the army headquarters after the army began attacking demonstrators in Khartoum, Sudan on 3 June 2019 [Stringer/Anadolu Agency]

Critics say that the government is masking its inability to find solutions to the ongoing problems which now include a lack of transport, frequent electricity cuts, a shortage of cash in the ATMs and diminishing supplies of medicines and medical disposables. Away from the capital Khartoum, some towns have already come to a standstill because of fuel shortages. In Halfa El Jadeeda and Kassala in East Sudan, for example, petrol stations have stopped operating completely, leading to protests by motorcyclists.

Dealing with the coronavirus issue is no doubt at the forefront in the minds of Sudan’s transitional government officials who have created, to their credit, 200 more jobs to deal with the pandemic. For obvious reasons, the implication for the well-being of Sudan’s population is of great concern, but perhaps the greatest fear is that a major health crisis in the midst of the growing general disaffection could trip the country into acute social, political and economic unrest. Nevertheless, for now, officials hope that the state of emergency and the fight against the spread of the virus will encourage the Sudanese to work with the transitional government, rather than against it.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.