The Vice-President and Defence Minister of South Sudan, one of the world’s poorest countries, have tested positive for the novel coronavirus after a surge of cases swept through the task force that was leading the government’s response to the pandemic.
Vice-President Riek Machar and his wife, Defence Minister Angelina Teny, along with a number of their staff and bodyguards and other members of the high-level task force, have contracted the illness, Mr. Machar said in a televised announcement Monday night. He added that neither he nor his wife have any symptoms of COVID-19 and will self-isolate for two weeks.
Mr. Machar was deputy chairman of the task force and Ms. Teny was also a member.
Mr. Machar did not identify the others on the task force who tested positive. The government had already announced that the task force would be disbanded and replaced by another team.
The surge in South Sudan is an example of emerging hot spots around the world as the virus expands into more remote regions.
Millions of people in South Sudan have been forced from their homes by years of violence and civil war. Two cases of the virus have now been reported in one of the vast, overcrowded United Nations camps for displaced people, causing huge concern among relief agencies.
The virus was slow to reach South Sudan, one of the last countries in Africa to report a case. As recently as April 27, the country had reported only five. But this week, it confirmed a total of 347 cases and six deaths.
“We are now at a stage where cases are doubling every five days,” said a Facebook message by Health Minister Elizabeth Achuei Yol, who heads the South Sudan task force.
The virus has been growing “exponentially,” she said, urging citizens to avoid conspiracy theories. “Any misinformation on COVID-19 is as dangerous as the disease itself. This novel virus is real and it kills.”
After imposing a series of lockdown restrictions on the country in April, the government has faced criticism for its decision to relax the restrictions on May 8, even as the rise in the number of cases was accelerating. It reduced the nightly curfew, allowed shops and motorcycle taxis to resume business with some limits and reopened its airports for domestic and international flights.
The South Sudan Doctors’ Union was among the groups that expressed concern about the relaxing of the rules.
Mr. Machar, a former rebel leader who joined the government this year under a peace agreement, was criticized on South Sudan’s social media Monday night for not wearing a mask during his televised speech to the country, even though other people were in the room with him.
The pandemic task force reportedly recommended in a report this week that the government consider a law making it mandatory for everyone to wear masks.
Last week, the UN announced that two cases had been detected at a crowded camp for almost 30,000 displaced people in South Sudan’s capital, Juba. Another case has been detected in a similar camp in the town of Bentiu, where almost 120,000 displaced people are sheltering.
Humanitarian agencies have been deeply concerned that the virus could spread quickly through the world’s camps for refugees and internally displaced people, as the camps are often overcrowded, lack running water and soap, are unable to impose physical-distancing rules and are at higher risk because of malnutrition and infectious diseases.
Almost 200,000 people are sheltering in UN-run civilian protection camps that were established in South Sudan after the civil war erupted in late 2013.
The sharp increase in cases in South Sudan in recent weeks is “very worrying,” said Claudio Miglietta, head of the South Sudan mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
“What is even more concerning is that now COVID-19 has started spreading among the population of some of the largest and most congested displaced persons camps in the country,” he said in a statement last week.
Tens of thousands of people in these camps are “living in dire conditions with flimsy, small shelters where up to 12 family members live together and with poor access to water and soap,” he said. “Maintaining physical distance and adequate hygiene levels in these settings is nearly impossible.”
James Reynolds, head of the delegation in South Sudan for the International Committee of the Red Cross, voiced the same concerns about the risks for people in the camps. “They live in quite cramped conditions,” he said in a statement last week.
“If you have got lots of people living in a single home without maybe running water inside, it’s very difficult for people to respect hand washing, social distancing, wearing a mask – all these things.”
In response to the pandemic, the UN has increased the water supply and handwashing facilities at the camps. But one of the biggest challenges is dispelling the misinformation and rumours that surround the virus.
Until a few weeks ago, many South Sudanese believed the virus would not reach their country, possibly because of the hot climate. With the recent surge in cases, most people accept that the virus is real, but many believe in herbal remedies.
“They hear about it, but they don’t know what it is or how to protect themselves from it,” said Kory Funk, the MSF health promotion manager in South Sudan.
Masks and physical distancing are becoming more common in the UN camps but are still not the norm for most people, he said.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.