At the time of writing, there have been around 3,000 and 300 confirmed Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in Sudan and South Sudan respectively, although actual infections are likely to be higher than official figures due to the low availability of testing among the population. South Sudan’s response to the virus has drawn on some of the techniques seen across the world to try to limit, or slow, its spread and protect vulnerable populations. These include public campaigns for improved hygiene practices (particularly hand-washing); restrictions of movement internally (often referred to as lockdowns); and national border closures. How these measures might be improved, or tailored to South Sudan’s communities—particularly the majority who do not live in towns and cities—are proposed in RVI’s recent briefing: ‘Responding to COVID-19 in South Sudan: Making local knowledge count’.
Focusing on South Sudan’s borderland with Sudan, in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, it is clear that the national response to the virus, particularly the border shutdown, has rapidly become a new factor in Sudan and South Sudan’s cross-border political economy. The direct impact of COVID-19—like the consequences of Khartoum’s political transition and the establishment of the Transitional Government of National Unity in Juba—are yet to fully materialize in this borderland. This update summarizes the current political holding pattern around both COVID-19 and the political transitions in Khartoum and Juba, and how these interact with established long-distance trade and migrant work systems that drive the borderland economy.
Lockdown of a closed economy
South Sudan’s coronavirus task force—a 15-member body responsible for coordinating the response to the virus—shut the country’s national borders on 23 March following global moves towards national lockdowns to manage the spread of COVID-19. For South Sudan’s border with Sudan—between Northern Bahr elGhazal and South Darfur—this has resulted in a restriction of some movement across the border rather than a complete shutdown. The border remains open for everyday trade, enabling local people to maintain access to basic food, as well as their incomes as small-scale traders. Most high value cross-border trade has been officially banned.
Everyday border markets continue. Darfur traders bring sugar, tea and sorghum for sale, and buy up animals, tamarind, lalob fruits, palms and gum Arabic from South Sudan traders. But formal trade in fuel, cement and other construction materials is now banned. These items now only arrive via smuggling networks as contraband goods. The same is true for people, whose movements are heavily controlled on either side of the border