One year after the military coup that unseated former President Omar al-Bashir, Sudan ranks among the lowest positions in the Human Development Index list (HDI).
In 2020 humanitarian needs continue to rise; some 9.3 million people – 23 per cent of the population – require humanitarian assistance, including 6.2 million people expected to be in need of food and livelihood support. Armed conflicts continue in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile while inter-ethnic clashes often arise in other States, maintaining the population’s concerns over protection. This complex crisis has led to internal displacement of around 2 million Sudanese. Additionally, the country is hosting the fourth-highest number of refugees and asylum seekers in the world at 1.1 million - mainly coming from South Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, Central African Republic, Ethiopia - requiring humanitarian and protection support, both inside and outside the camps. The largest number of refugees is represented by South Sudanese; around 820,000 are reported to be living in Sudan, as of March 2020. Sudan also acts as a key transit country for migrants from the Horn of Africa heading to North Africa or Europe.
The extensive and protracted humanitarian crisis undermines the country’s already complicated political transition and is compounded by a deteriorating socio-economic system, climate change related effects on food security and malnutrition, and the COVID-19 outbreak. Sudan is facing a long-standing economic crisis, with currency devaluation, rising inflation and soaring prices of basic commodities as well as cash, fuel and food shortages. Over the years, the economic instability caused further constraints to people's purchasing power, mostly affecting the country’s most vulnerable groups, and bringing a significant part of the population into a state of increased poverty. Investment in basic services have been minimal, with poor coverage for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), health and education, particularly in conflict affected and rural areas. The transitional government is committed to stemming the economic crisis through reforms that will involve universal subsidies cuts, further impacting poor households.
Sudan is also among the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change. It has a high exposure to natural disasters, such as desertification, drought and cyclical flooding that contribute to weakening the socio-economic situation of the communities. Such natural phenomena can cause poverty and may result in the loss of livelihoods and in the worsening of inter-communal tensions, forcing affected people to migrate. Moreover, swarm invasions from bordering countries to Sudan’s eastern States remain a high risk for agriculture and pastures.
The food security and nutrition situation remain fragile and many vulnerable individuals depend on assistance to meet their basic food needs. Over 2.7 million children suffer from acute malnutrition. Outbreaks, especially waterborne diseases, are still endemic mainly due to heavy rainfall and floods, straining health services that are overwhelmed and understaffed. Basic services are lacking with an extremely limited access to drinking water supply, sanitation and hygiene facilities.
Making matters worse, the COVID-19 outbreak is having an adverse impact on the already critical socio-economic conditions of the population. The pandemic did not take the government by surprise, as it immediately closed all airports, ports and land crossings, declaring a public health emergency to minimize a further spread of the virus. With the increase in confirmed cases, Khartoum State decided to implement a three-week lockdown starting from 18th April 2020, allowing people to access food stores and pharmacies within their neighbourhood, only from 6:00 am to 1:00 pm. In spite of the start of Ramadan, prayers in mosques have been suspended during the lockdown.
The public health system lacks sufficient and adequately trained medical staff, as well as equipment and facilities to provide reliable tests; thus, it is likely that the total number of positive cases (as of 19th May 2020, 2729 cases out of 5116 performed tests) is being underestimated. Sudanese authorities are pushing global actors to enhance their COVID-19 response, remarking that its diffusion can further compromise a fragile public health situation, already burdened by several outbreaks, namely cholera, chikungunya, dengue fever, malaria.
The international community is closely working with the government to scale up its capacities to tackle COVID-19, such as coordination, surveillance, testing, isolation, case management, infection prevention and control, supplies, risk communication and community engagement. In light of the peculiar Sudanese humanitarian context, the virus puts everyone at risk, more than in Europe or in the United States, as most people live in very poor conditions, mainly in slums or displaced sites, where lockdown measures prevent daily workers from earning their wage, leading them to starvation. They lack basic services and they live in overcrowded households or informal settlements. Social distancing is a privilege only a minority could afford. Broadly speaking the groups that are most at risk are women, the elderly, people with disabilities and migrants, many of whom are undocumented. The pandemic is expected to exacerbate the existing gender inequalities and the virus is more likely to affect women as compared to men. Curfews and lockdowns are limiting their work and economic opportunities. The domestic and caregiving burdens that women perform within the home expose them to greater gender-based violence risks. During the pandemic women and girls also face a real risk of sexual exploitation and abuse as they seek survival for themselves and their families.
There is not yet clear evidence of the immediate impact of COVID-19 in the country. It is too early to forecast any realistic scenario. However, as is the case for other African countries, it has the potential to have devastating socio-economic consequences, driven by restrictive measures, an increase in public health costs and a predictable slowdown in remittances.
The scale, severity and complexity of needs across the country remain far reaching. The way forward is still long for a lasting political, economic and socio-cultural stability in the new Sudan. The country will be able to face all the current challenges only through a decentralised response tailored to the local context, multi-sectoral partnerships and an effective multilateral international strategy.