One by one, the VIPs line up to squirt detergent on their hands and carefully wash them under a stream of water from a cooler stationed at the side of the airstrip in Yei.
It is a simple act but, in Yei, it’s something you’re required to do, whether you’re a member of a visiting high-powered delegation or a member of the local community.
The procedure is in place to help prevent the spread of the deadly Ebola virus disease, which is causing immense suffering just across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Almost 1,650 people have died in the outbreak, which is DRC’s worst-ever and the world’s second largest in history.
South Sudanese health officials, UN humanitarian agencies and ambassadors from donor countries have made this special trip to Yei to see first-hand the work underway to prevent and respond to a potential Ebola outbreak.
The region was one of the worst-hit during the devastating civil war that raged across South Sudan for five years. Efforts to build peace are underway, but the arrival of Ebola would put that process at risk in an area desperately focused on recovery and building resilience.
“Because of Ebola, once again Yei is at the frontlines of a new battle and, because of this threat, it is really the most important place in South Sudan right now,” says United States Ambassador to South Sudan, Thomas Hushek. “This is where we are most worried about what might happen.”
A prevention and preparedness plan is being implemented, including vaccination of front-line health workers and screening and surveillance at border points and other locations to help with early detection.
Personnel are being trained in infection prevention and control and procedures are in place in case safe and dignified burial processes are needed. Tens of thousands of people in high-risk areas are also being educated to ensure they can recognize the risks, be alert to symptoms and know how to take action if Ebola strikes.
“It can be a bit frustrating when you’re preparing for a long-time and the disease doesn’t come and you have many other problems,” says the European Union Ambassador to South Sudan, Sinead Walsh. “But I really want to tell the community members here that, if Ebola actually does come and, if it’s not controlled, then it really will become your biggest problem – bigger than malaria, bigger than everything else.”
Having personally experienced the Ebola outbreak in West Africa between 2014-2016, the ambassador knows the important role communities play in prevention and response. But to be able to help, people need to be properly educated.
“It’s really important to have that awareness because communities in South Sudan can defeat Ebola. They can use the knowledge they have to keep a sharp eye on any potential cases so that, even if Ebola comes to South Sudan, it can’t spread widely,” she says.
South Sudanese health officials recognize the seriousness of the threat and the need for community mobilization. They believe educational efforts also need to focus on convincing people to change traditional practices, including burial processes and hunting and eating bush meat, such as monkeys.
“In South Sudan, we have a communal way of living that encourages the spread of the disease through interaction between members of the family. For example, during the burial, in some communities, people dance around the body, touch and kiss the corpse. In the case of Ebola, that will be a very dangerous thing to do,” says South Sudan’s Under-Secretary for Health, Dr. Makur Kariom.
“So, the involvement of the community, educating them and getting them to take ownership of the measures required to prevent the spread of the disease is quite important.”
The United Nations Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Humanitarian Coordinator, Alain Noudehou, stresses the need for national and local authorities to work in partnership with humanitarian agencies in the fight against Ebola, particularly to ensure that health workers have safe and unhindered access to all communities.
“Ebola does not recognize any particular borders. It does not recognize that I’m from here or there,” he says. “It is something that, if it crosses into South Sudan, it will be a serious challenge to the country.”
Many countries have donated funds to Ebola prevention and preparedness in South Sudan. Despite that generosity, only half of the funding has been collected so far. An additional US$14 million is still required to prevent the devastating impact that Ebola would have on a country working desperately to recover from war and build a more peaceful and prosperous future for its people.