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‘The UN didn’t do anything wrong’: Peacekeepers in South Sudan respond to Covid-19 criticism

South Sudan has recorded five cases of Covid-19. The first case was confirmed to be a United Nations staffer, leading to bitter public criticism of the organisation.

For its part, the UN introduced tough measures to protect their staff, including a complete lockdown in UN camps and restrictions on internal travel. There are nearly 20 000 UN peacekeepers in the country under the auspices of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS),

“They are pretty harsh comments. [UN staff] didn’t do anything wrong. It is like catching a cold. They did not do anything deliberately on purpose,” said UNMISS chief David Shearer, in an interview with the Mail & Guardian.

Tensions are so high that President Salva Kiir has had to warn citizens against using hate speech or making racist remarks towards UN staff and other foreigners residing in the country. “I must warn you that Covid-19 can be brought into the country by anyone, including South Sudanese,” Kiir said in a speech on national television. “I call upon you to exercise restraint and avoid hate speeches and xenophobic utterances against our guests and those who have come to provide services to us from other countries and organizations.”

These tensions were exacerbated when one UN staffer, who had come into contact with a Covid-19 patient, fled quarantine and left the country — potentially putting others at risk in the process.

“Any United Nations staff who fail to adhere to the requirements for testing and self-isolation will face disciplinary action,” the UN said in a statement. “He received one test that confirmed him as negative and then left Juba on a flight without the knowledge of the United Nations. The flight was commercial, not a United Nations flight.”

South Sudan’s government has said that it will hold the UN accountable if this incident leads to a further spreading of the virus. It imposed an indefinite nationwide lockdown in March, closing schools, religious institutions, non-essential businesses and social gatherings; as well as banning international passenger flights and imposing a night-time curfew.

Foreigners working in the country have expressed concern over being targeted in xenophobic attacks, as a result of the rise in tensions.

Caroline Wanjui, a Kenyan businessperson, said that the comments she has been noting on social media are blaming nonresidents like herself for importing the virus.

“When they start such xenophobic remarks we are not safe. I am worried about my life,” said Wanjui.

Tyson Otieno, a Kenyan barber in Juba, said that the virus should be bringing people together rather than driving them apart. “Different foreign communities living in South Sudan are exposed to the same risks of contracting coronavirus as the nationals. The virus does not mind whether you are white or black, or whether you are from whatever country, it affects all the human race.”

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