Socioeconomic Impact of COVID-19 on Sudanese Households

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Sudan, like the rest of the world, has been experiencing the unprecedented social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Sudanese authorities attempted to act quickly in the face of the spreading virus. In March 2020 the Government established a high-level emergency committee to oversee the operations to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government imposed closure of schools, airports, ports, and land crossings; banned travel between states; and prohibited mass gatherings. A partial lockdown was imposed in Khartoum State in mid-March 2020. Restrictions on movement are expected to make the economic situation worse, with commodity prices soaring across the country. The rapid spread of COVID-19 in Sudan and the Government’s containment measures could negatively affect household welfare including loss of employment and income, decreased access to basic commodities and services, and food security. The COVID-19 pandemic will likely worsen living conditions, particularly among the poor and vulnerable Sudanese.

The objective of the Sudan High Frequency Survey on COVID-19 is to quickly collect household (and firmlevel) information, using phones, to monitor the crisis and assess the dynamics of the impacts of COVID-19 on households (and micro, small and medium enterprises [MSMEs]) in Sudan. The survey will help inform dialogue and mitigation measures. The survey focuses on the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 on households in urban and rural areas and provides near real-time data, supporting an evidence-based response to the crisis.

The survey is implemented jointly by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) and the World Bank. As faceto-face surveys were not feasible, the survey was conducted using mobile phones and covers all 18 states of Sudan. The survey will monitor the impact of coronavirus on the daily lives of Sudanese who are being interviewed, with a panel of 4,032 households, representative at the national level. Round 1 of data collection was conducted during June 16–July 5, 2020 (about three months after the declaration of the outbreak in Sudan and lockdown). This sample allows to draw statistically inferences of the Sudanese population at the national and rural/urban levels. Several questions were asked in Round 1 regarding different topics: knowledge of COVID-19 and social behavior, access to goods and services, food security, and jobs.

With regards to knowledge and social behavior, 98 percent of the respondents have heard about the COVID-19 pandemic. Sudanese have good knowledge of the measures to be followed to limit the spread of the virus. Most respondents report complying with these measures. For example, the handwashing preventive measure seems to be adopted by most respondents (89 percent). At the same time, a substantial share of respondents (one-third) neither avoid social distancing nor wear face masks in public. Most respondents (80 percent) worry about the probability of serious illness from COVID-19 and feel the threat to household finances due to COVID-19. A majority of the respondents (86 percent) seemed satisfied with the government’s response to COVID-19.

In terms of consumer goods availability, the health crisis might have worsened the availability of certain basic commodities, particularly bread and cereals as well as milk and milk products. A substantial share of households was unable to buy main staple foods, but this shortage of the basic food products was more pronounced among households in urban areas households. The main reason for the inability to access food products seems to be increase in prices. This is to a large extent driven by product availability in the market, particularly in urban areas.

Price increases were felt by most households for all food staples; however, the urban population were disproportionately affected. The most vulnerable (particularly the urban poor) might be bearing a larger burden of the price increases. CPI data suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic may be playing a role in the price increases, although the size of its impact cannot be disentangled from price increases due to other reasons such as the macroeconomic instability and the recent locust infections that affected countries in East Africa.

The coverage rate and quality of social insurance is much lower for the most economically vulnerable people. This segment of the population would therefore be a priori more exposed to the impact of the health crisis. However, the difficulty in accessing health care during confinement affected almost all categories of the population in a uniform manner, regardless of whether they live in urban or rural areas. This was mainly due to the unavailability of medical personnel and also the limitation in movements. The health crisis caused severe disruptions in the education sector due to closure of schools, with immense impact on learning. While 50 percent of households had children who attended school before school closures, due to the COVID-19 lockdown only a small proportion (9 percent) were engaged in learning activities during school closures. This affected the rural areas more than urban areas.

Access to financial services was also severely restricted during the lockdown to minimize the spread of COVID-19. For every five households that needed financial services, one could not access a financial institution (ATM, bank, or mobile money). The reasons were mainly related to the measures imposed to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic including the closure of banks, movement limitation, and fear of going out because of coronavirus.

Regarding jobs, economic activity has sharply reduced for most employees, and a decline in incomes has been observed in both rural and urban areas. Indeed, only a third of the respondents who declared working before the lockdown were able to continue their work because of COVID-19. With regard to employment sectors, people buying and selling goods have been the most affected (40 percent), followed by those in the services (13 percent) and freelancers (13 percent) and agriculture, hunting and fishing workers (10 percent). Among the employees who had to stop working, only 26 percent received their full salary while 47 percent received only part of their salary and 27 percent received no payment altogether. Family production units were also heavily affected by the crisis. About one-third of households were unable to perform normal farming activities during the outbreak. A substantial share of households experienced an income loss.

Most households have been affected by COVID-19, mostly through jobs and income losses, but also through rising food prices exacerbated by the health crisis. For example, in the 30 days prior to the interview, 46 percent of the respondents said they were worried about having enough food to eat; rural and female headed households, in particular, expressed this concern. There is evidence of modification in eating habits; for example, households reduced the quantities consumed or started consuming foods that they normally do not like.. This modification was more pronounced in urban areas. A substantial share of Sudanese households reported a decline in their international remittances and domestic remittances since the outbreak of the pandemic.

To cope with income losses and rising food prices, households adopt several coping strategies. These include cutting back on food, reducing consumption of goods, using savings for expenditure, resorting to on-credit purchases, and selling assets. However, a significant share of households (27 percent) did nothing, especially those in rural areas. Social assistance programs were almost non-existent as the share of respondents who report receiving any form of social assistance is very low (2 percent).

Potential policy responses based on these findings include the following. First, ensuring basic needs are met because of the soaring food prices. For example, targeting of aid programs to the neediest. Second, compensating people for loss of income. This could be done through social safety net programs. Third, avoiding further food price hikes and shortages by the government ensuring a well-functioning food market. Fourth, mitigating negative impacts on human capital by scaling up public health diagnostic and care capabilities in underserved areas, waiving medical bills, and continuing public awareness campaign on COVID-19, making efforts to bring all children back to school, particularly those from poor households who run the risk of dropping out (on-site meals for school children and take-home rations could encourage children to stay in school). Fifth, providing incentives to firms to minimize layoffs, including grants to (small) private sector firms, supporting active labor market programs to transition workers into training or new jobs; giving tax breaks/cuts and financial support. Sixth and perhaps most importantly, increase efforts to contain the spread of the virus, particularly given that the ongoing second wave of the pandemic is hitting Sudan much harder than the first wave. Ways to reduce the risk of the second wave in the country include intensifying the government’s COVID-19 awareness/prevention campaign. Results from this survey would inform areas for improvement to minimize the spread of the virus (for example, promoting adoption of preventive measures, especially among males).

This panel survey is intended to gradually integrate the most relevant issues for Sudanese households as they progress toward deconfinement. The second round of data collection, the results of which will be published shortly, incorporates questions on access to water, electricity, and fuel and transportation services as well as questions on social tensions, crime, violence, and conflicts within communities.