A vaccination campaign team from UNICEF arrived in a small motorboat last month in the flooded village of Verniol, near the capital of South Sudan, and met with elders under a tree on a small stretch of land.
The team went through the factsheet about the coronavirus and the vaccine, point by point, hoping to warn of what they suspected could trigger a barrage of questions from elders about the vaccine and its side effects.
But above all, the elders wanted to know: When will the rains stop?
In recent years, it sometimes seems like rain is the only thing some South Sudanese have ever known. The result was the worst flooding in parts of South Sudan in six decades, affecting about a third of the country.
For most of the 11 million people in this landlocked country in east-central Africa, one of the poorest countries on Earth, the coronavirus pandemic is not high on the list of concerns.
Many people fled from Verniola and other villages in Jonglei State, and those who stayed lost their crops, livestock and their homes. Because fish is almost the only food available, malnutrition is as widespread as disease.
In Pavel, another flooded village a few hours below a river that was road just a few years ago, village leader James Quir Bior, 50, was a little skeptical of UN officials about how the coronavirus vaccine works against everyone. other needs of the village.
“We need drugs and nets,” Mr Bior said as thin clouds overhead hinted at more rain. “Now we can only think about how to get out of this flood.”
Villagers recognize the pandemic as a threat. Just maybe not very urgent.
“We have heard that people are dying,” said Mr Bior, “but we have not seen anyone here sick.” And besides, he said: “When you are hungry, you do not think about other things – you have to feed your stomach first.”
In any case, the issue of vaccines remained controversial for these villages until the flood subsided. The nearest airstrip was flooded with water several feet, so a batch of Johnson & Johnson shots destined for the area got stuck in Juba, the country’s capital. The runway finally opened in mid-November and vaccinations are due to begin on Friday, November 26th.
South Sudan, the newest nation in the world, was born of hardship and hope, but little seems to have changed since the day its people voted to secede from Sudan in 2011. The past decade has been a time of political conflict and humanitarian crises.
Last month, I spent nearly a week traveling with a UN team assessing flood damage and preparing for a vaccine deployment in a region most of which is only accessible by canoe and small motorboat these days.
In Pavel, about a dozen men gathered to discuss the imminent arrival of the vaccine, elders listening almost intently as a team from the UN aid agency led by 41-year-old Dau Deng filled them out. Young people nearby played chess, even chess. less interested, since the temperature fluctuated around 100 degrees.
This was the case in many places where we went.
A virus born halfway across the world, even one that has killed millions of people, cannot compete with the threat that reigns in their homes.
David Ayik Deng Riak, project manager for Community in Need, a local organization, said the disease is not new to the region. “Malaria is the leading parasitic disease in this area,” he said, “followed by respiratory infection and, of course, parasitic worms.”
November 20, 2021 2:27 PM ET
The flood made things even worse. Nowadays, it is common for people to go to hospitals with waterborne diseases such as dysentery, giardia, hepatitis and schistosomiasis. “Because people stay in the water all day,” said Mr Riak.
While testing is scarce, there is little evidence that South Sudan has a serious Covid problem.
“Children are dying from malaria, diarrheal diseases, respiratory infections,” said Yves Villemot, UNICEF’s public relations officer. “We have one child in 10 dying before the age of 5 and they are not dying from COVID-19,” he said.
South Sudan is currently administering about 152,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine, donated from the United States through the global COVAX distribution program. This is the third batch of vaccines the country has received, and the Ministry of Health, with support from various UN agencies, is training vaccinators and overcoming logistical barriers to vaccine distribution.
When the first shipment of vaccines arrived in South Sudan in March, there was so little room for distribution that the government decided to donate half of the vaccine to neighboring Kenya to keep it from going to waste. The second batch of the AstraZeneca-University of Oxford vaccine arrived on August 31, but was not due to expire until a month later. Despite the thick window, officials said all of it was used.
The country now hosts the third batch of Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one vaccine instead of two.
The vaccine is not the only one that has been shipped to South Sudan. So there are some unfounded rumors about it that are circulating in many parts of the world. In Pawel, a village elder brought up one issue directly.
“Will we be able to fulfill our responsibilities as men?” asked 58-year-old John Mayak Daewoo, when some of the young chess players finally looked up and giggled. “Some of our sons, these people in the United States, have told us that this vaccine is not good. This will cause sterility. “
UN officials assured him that infertility is not a side effect of the vaccine.
But in other areas, there seems to be less hesitation.
In the capital of South Sudan, Juba, there was a steady flow of people to vaccination sites throughout the city in October.
At one location at Guri Primary Health Care Center, 22-year-old Johnson Gaga had little use of rumors, rumors that the vaccine spreads to the liver and causes death within a year. He wanted to be shot to continue his studies abroad, in Uganda.
“If you don’t have a vaccine.” he said: “They won’t let us in.”