Between March and November 2020, REACH bases across South Sudan were mobilised to track rumours and perceptions of communities relating to COVID-19 and collect data on community understanding of COVID-19 and the response. This was collated into a rumours and perceptions tracker developed by REACH, which fed into the ‘Covid-19 South Sudan Rumour and Perceptions Tracking Overview’ products published by the Communication and Community Engagement Working Group (CCEWG) based on data submitted by REACH, IOM and Internews (Issues #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5). This joint data collection and analysis sought to understand how South Sudanese communities perceived the virus, to understand rumours and concerns regarding Covid-19 and inform risk communication strategies. By late 2020, data saturation, Covid19 no longer being strategically prioritised to the same degree, and the suspension of the CCEWG publication of joint analysis, led to a decision to discontinue REACH rumour-tracking.
However, the beginning of 2021 saw a marked rise in Covid-19 cases, followed by a partial lockdown.1 At the end of March,
South Sudan received 132,000 AstraZeneca vaccines through COVAX.2 About a month into the roll-out of the vaccine, only 3,500 people had been vaccinated, prompting concerns of vaccine hesitancy.3 As outlined in a recent Mercy Corps report, “By the time that vaccine campaigns reach communities in fragile and conflict-affected contexts, there is a very real risk that compliance with public health guidelines will be low and vaccine refusal will be high, further prolonging the spread of the virus and fuelling protracted waves of conflict and economic disruption,” concluding that a “failure to incorporate communitylevel beliefs and perceptions into vaccine initiatives...can lead to increased mistrust.”4 Thus, this assessment aims to get a better understanding of community perceptions of Covid-19 after the surge in cases in 2021, gauge awareness of the vaccine across South Sudan, as well as perceptions and willingness to be vaccinated amongst the South Sudanese population.
2.2 Intended Impact
As outlined in the journal Public Health, “it is paramount to understand how people plan to reject COVID-19 vaccines and the reasons behind their decision. Accomplishing this will help identify types of effective communication and awareness campaigns that might successfully convince people to accept vaccination services…failure to tackle religious, cultural, or other context-specific concerns related to COVID-19 vaccines will result in escalating rates of vaccine hesitancy in Africa.”5 Understanding and addressing any potential concerns or rumours circulating around the vaccine is key to ensuring a smooth roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine in South Sudan. This was also seen as an information gap and of strategic priority to the response, as mentioned both in the Risk Communication and Community Engagement Technical Working Group (RCCE TWG) meeting as well as the meeting of the Steering Committee of the NGO Forum. Consultations with key members of the RCCE TWG confirmed that filling the identified information gaps about Covid– and vaccine–perceptions is important in order to shape risk communication and awareness-raising around the vaccine.