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The dramatic effects of covid-19 on everyday life in Gadarif

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This text first appeared on the Chr. Michelsen Institute website, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Professor Hussein Sulieman is Director of the Centre for Remote Sensing & GIS, and Professor at the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of Gandarif.

A pastoralist family in southern Gadarif trekking their cattle herd to a watering point. Photo: Hussein Sulieman

Gadarif in Eastern Sudan has been one of the country’s covid-19 hotspots. Precarious food supplies and lacking border control could mean that the chances of containing the pandemic are slim.

When the covid-19 pandemic peaked in Sudan in April/May, Gadarif was number three on the list of the regions with the most covid-19 cases in the country. Up until a nationwide lockdown was implemented in June, the virus had been able to spread relatively easily in the entire region.  In late June, the government issued several orders to reduce the lockdown and the curfew. At the same time, they warned about the risks of a second wave and strongly urged people to take precautions and practice social distancing. But such requests are only useful if people actually have the opportunity to adhere to the advise they are given. Does Gadarif have the infrastructure it takes to succeed or is the easing of lockdown restrictions a disaster coming?

Why did Gadarif become acovid-19 hotspot?
Gadarif’s 265 km border with Ethiopia has made the state vulnerable to the spread of covid-19. The total lack of cooperation between the two countries when it comes to controlling and managing the covid-19 pandemic has become abundantly clear, and made matters even worse for Gadarif. Whenthe federal government in Sudan declared a public health emergency on 16 March 2020 and closed all airports, ports and land crossings, Ethiopia’s international airports remained open. Therefore, many stranded Sudanese citizens who wanted out of the country took advantage of the situation by flying to one of the international airports in Ethiopia, travel to the border in cars and then cross the border to Gadarif. Many of them stayed in Gadarif for quite a while and mingled with people while looking for a way to get smuggled home (as travelling between states was prohibited by that time). People entering Gadarif through the border was not the sole reason for the wide social spread of covid-19 in the region. People fleeing Khartoum and coming back to Gadarif when the rumours of a lockdown started also contributed to spreading covid-19 in Gadarif.

Poverty exacerbates the spread of covid-19
Covid-19 cannot be isolated from the general political situation and economic crisis in Sudan and Gadarif. The fluid and fragile political situation stopped the government in Gadarif from enforcing many of the orders and restrictions that were issued to control the pandemic. Also, the promises of the government to support vulnerable groups through the Zakat Chamber did not come to reality. The lack of essential goods complicates everything. Large crowds gathered in front of pharmacies and bakeries is a common sight. It is hard to adhere to guidelines about social distancing when people have to queue up just to get hold of bread. This already bad situation is accelerated by the closing of inter-state traffic and restrictions on intra-city movement. Loss of income due to the complete lockdown, combined with ever rising prices of necessities substantially increase poverty of people in Gadarif. This has mainly happened to daily wage basis workers who have now lost their household income. In many neighbourhoods in Gadarif, groups of youth and Resistance Committees have done a great effort and played significant role in gathering donations to support vulnerable households during Ramadan and in Eid.

The covid-19 virus has also exacerbated acute malnutrition in vulnerable households in Gadarif. Food security has been dramatically reduced and access to healthcare has been limited. Covid-19 has increased the burden on a health system that is already suffering from three decades of neglect by the former regime.

Despite the health authorities’ stern calls to avoid big gatherings, several protest marches have taken place in Gadarif. The political tension in the area has risen as a result of attacks by Ethiopian militias in the Sudanese territory during the last week of May. Several marches and demonstrations were organized in Gadarif, where people asked for an effective response from the government. Similar marches and protests where large crowds came together took place on June 30. The organization of demonstrations and sit ins have become a major political tool in the hands of people who demand services and rights. On such occasions, social distancing is virtually always ignored.

Seasonal agricultural activities may be affected
In the context of the current covid-19 emergency, increasing attention has been devoted to the possible effects that mobility restrictions may have on supplies from the agricultural sector. Gadarif State has the largest mechanized rain-fed agricultural land in Sudan. This sector provides the bulk of food needed not only by people in the Gadarif, but also by many others across the country. The rain-fed agricultural sector in Gadarif covers about 4.2 million hectares of land. Normally, farmers start their preparations prior to the rainy season in April and May. The preparations include dry season soil working and plowing, routine maintenance of machinery and reparation of field equipment and other activities. The current restrictions have made life hard for the farmers who depend on being able to stick to a calendar that they know work.

The restrictions have also made life harder for the pastoralist groups in Gadarif. They rely on daily and seasonal mobility to manage environmental variability and access resources and markets. April and May correspond to the end of the hot dry season, when fodder and water reserves are depleted and labour demands are high.  Emergency lockdown measures such as restricted movement have disrupted the migration patterns of the pastoralists, creating difficulties for their preparations for the rainy season.

The coming couple of weeks will be a make or break for the agriculture in Gadarif. Weeding season is coming up, with an acute demand for labour. Each year, thousands of immigrant labourers from Ethiopia and other parts of Sudan arrive in Gadarif to work during the weeding and harvesting season, and the agricultural sector is totally dependent on them. Unless the government comes up with comprehensive measures that can balance the need for seasonal workers with the risk of hosting large numbers of immigrant labourers, the agricultural sector in Gadarif may take a severe blow.

Ensuring that there are workers at hand for the upcoming weeding season, and that the farmers can resume their activities when they are supposed to is crucial for a successful harvest. So is transportation of agricultural inputs to the fields. Therefore, farmers have recently used their power (especially large-scale farmers) to push the government to an early lift of restrictions and exceptions for companies and shops in local markets in Gadarif. During the first week of June, the government in Gadarif issued a local order that will make the upcoming season easier for the farmers. Nevertheless, some think that it is too little too late. The covid-19 restrictions may turn out to have had a crushing effect on the production of agricultural products in Gadarif.