While there is never a good time for a country to face an epidemic, it could not come at a worse time for a country in transition like Sudan. Prior to the first cases of the coronavirus confirmed on 13 March, the country already faced a humanitarian and economic crisis. In February, the inflation rate was at 71% and prices were double those cited in 2019, according to the US-funded food monitoring body, the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS). The Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peace-building Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, told the UN Security Council recently that Sudan’s humanitarian needs were severe, with 9.3 million people needing aid by the end of 2019.
Amidst this daunting scenario, the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in March; now there are over 200 cases with a 10% increase taking place last Sunday. The pandemic could pose a potential “tipping point” for Sudan that could lead to Sudan’s relapse into political instability and conflict, says UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
The virus presents a vicious cycle: COVID-19 will likely exasperate already challenging humanitarian conditions while these same conditions may allow the pandemic to spread further.
Higher food prices
Government measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 such as movement restrictions and border closures has impacted trade and contributed to spikes in food prices. “Food prices that were already too high for the public are rising once more” says Sudan economist Kamal Karrar, “and represent the greatest humanitarian challenge”.Inflation rates actually increased 10% once the pandemic emerged in Sudan, Karrar said, recorded at 82% in March. This month also saw prices of staple grains such as sorghum and millet increase at double or even triple the rates from last year, the UN reported. The number of Khartoum residents facing food insecurity actually doubled since last year. Based on interviews with citizens across the country, Sudanese families appear more worried over lost income and rising commodity prices than infection from the coronavirus itself. Ali Tarig from Singa, a town in Sennar State, says the measures to curb COVID-19 have led to huge price increases, especially for the fruits and vegetables generally eaten during the Ramadan holy month. With markets closed and heightened fuel costs, traders have increased prices. Given the economic conditions, few in Singa can adhere to the government’s social-distancing measures designed to halt the virus’ spread. “People in Sennar have not accepted the decision to ban markets and enforce a lockdown since they have limited incomes and do not have steady salaries,” Tarig said.
Hasham Ali, a builder and father of three living in the capital’s twin city Omdurman, believes traders have used the virus as a pretext to raise food prices. “Without money we are unable to eat and the prices are increasing daily,” Ali said, “The government claimed they were to bring commodities, but where are they?”
Sudan’s Trade and Industry Minister, Madani Abbas Madani, said his ministry launched a project this week in coordination with Sudan’s business union to provide basic commodities to the public with controlled, industrial prices. “The government cannot interfere in pricing goods since laws formerly used to do this were repealed in the nineties”, Minister Abbas explains. “The idea of the project is to fight price hikes and prevent brokers from making any increases.” To ensure that basic commodities are available during this difficult time the ministry has imported key commodities and restricted exports of vital foodstuffs such as maize, the minister added.
The cash-strapped government may be losing a million dollars a day due to the virus, according to economist Bishara Al-Amin Mohamed. Blocked cross-border trade is severely impacting much-needed cash flows as well as curbing the transport of goods within the country. The livestock trade, for instance, is in decline and represents Sudan’s second leading export commodity. Exports to Saudi Arabia, which consumes roughly 60% of Sudan’s livestock exports, is now halved.
The government’s efforts to soften the blow against the economic consequences of a virus lockdown may not be enough and there are few signs that the international community will pick up the slack.
Sudan remains on the US’ State Sponsors of Terrorism list, denying it access to the International Monetary Fund-World Bank $50 billion trust fund to assist vulnerable countries to fight COVID-19. Sudan has issued one of the world’s highest aid appeals for 2020, requesting $1.3 billion but only 13% of this appeal is funded so far, according to Jan Egeland, the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council. The Council was one of the 13 NGOs expelled from Sudan by former president Omar al-Bashir in 2009 that are now invited back by the new administration. To ignore the country’s plight, Egeland and others say, could lead Sudan into another humanitarian disaster. Bachelet believes donor apathy could “run the risk of a country which held such promise relapsing back into political instability and potential conflict.”
Those most affected by government measures to curb the virus come from the restive Darfur region. Prices are rising in a region where over a million people remain conflict-displaced with few humanitarian organisations to assist them. After the pandemic came, according to local residents in South Darfur State, prices for basic commodities such as corn nearly doubled while a kilo of sugar has almost tripled in price. Darfur is woefully unprepared to deal with the pandemic, while high prices ensure that residents are unable to adhere to government regulations designed to curb the virus’ further spread.
Fathi Hussan, a resident of Al Daein, the capital of East Darfur State, says the partial lockdown in place in Al Daein makes survival a daily challenge: Darfur residents are unable to follow the government’s directives as much as they may like to do so. “If you don’t provide people with basic commodities, people are unable to follow the lockdown measures – you see this happening all over the city.”
Displaced persons powder keg
While towns in Darfur are wary of the virus spreading, the internally displaced persons [IDPs] camps pose the greatest challenge in terms of containing the spread of the virus. Living in close proximity with limited access to health facilities, not to mention basic commodities such as soap and water, is paving the way for another potential humanitarian disaster. A local camp leader for IDPs in Tawilah camp North Darfur State, Musa Mukhtar, says it is difficult to implement the correct virus prevention techniques. “Combatting Corona is difficult, even the process of washing hands is difficult given limited water access – not to mention medical sterilizers, masks and other protective devices”. The Director General of the Health Ministry in South Darfur State, Mohamed Idris, admits there are no isolation centres within the camps, only in the city at the Nyala Teaching Hospital.
“The Darfur displaced may be heading for a ticking time bomb,” says Faisal Salah, an activist and volunteer aid worker in Geneina, capital of West Darfur State. “But the government measures to prevent the virus may pose another kind of bomb for Darfur as we struggle with limited incomes and higher prices.”
There is no question that the coronavirus is spreading in Sudan. The Ministry of Health reported 74 new cases in Khartoum on Monday and another 86 on Tuesday, totalling 778 confirmed cases and admitting that the actual figure is likely much higher. But many Sudanese feel they cannot adhere to government regulations to contain the virus and call on the cash-strapped state to provide assistance. If there ever were ever a time to provide foreign assistance – as fiscal support or in another form – it would be now.
 Khartoum, March 25
 Singa, Sennar State, 28 April
 Omdurman, Khartoum State, 28 April
 Khartoum, 27 April
 Al-Daein, East Darfur State, 28 April
 Tawilah Camp, North Darfur State, 27 April
 Khartoum, 2 May