An orphan’s battle against COVID-19 in South Sudan
A glimpse into the day of a social mobiliser
On a sunny Thursday morning, Nyok Daniel, 25, walks through a busy street in the center of Malakal town, holding a megaphone in his right hand.
He paces down to a halt near a group of women arranging food items on roadside stalls. What follows is a loud crackle of his megaphone.
“Avoid close contacts and handshakes. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water to protect yourself from coronavirus disease,” he shouts.
He turns to men sipping tea in front of a makeshift restaurant crafted from rusty iron sheets that makes up both the walls and roof.
“Maintain physical distance from one another,” he says and branches off the main road into a crowded market to continue with COVID-19 messaging.
In this town, the capital of South Sudan’s northeastern state of Upper Nile, a 55-year-old mother with no recent history of travel was confirmed with COVID19 more than two weeks ago. This suggests she wasn’t the zero case here, according to public health experts.
For a locality reeling out of years of brutal conflict that began in 2013, leaving in its wake debris of destruction and a poor health system and infrastructure, the COVID19 pandemic compounds an already fragile situation that humanitarian agencies are trying to salvage together with the public.
As we walk into the market, Nyok tells me of his role in managing the risk communication response to the pandemic in Upper Nile, as the team leader of UNICEF-supported social mobilisers doing awareness raising and behavior change communication.
“I have to make sure that our people are informed to change their behaviors to reduce the spread of this viral disease. I want our people to understand that our first line of care is to reduce its spread.”
Orphaned at 12 by a widow with six children, Nyok spent a significant part of his childhood battling preventable diseases, trekking with his mother from one town to another in search for better basic services, and, at that tender age, helping his mother with household chores.
“I used to babysit my siblings and had no time to go to school.”
Nyok is now on a mission: to ensure children and mothers are protected from preventable diseases and that no child relives his story, including being out of school to perform household duties.
“COVID19 is a pandemic, but I think our people can learn to prevent themselves from contracting it.”
As he walks away from the market into the suburbs, his blue social mobiliser jacket gently flapping in the wind, Nyok grimaces at the sight of a boy curled up on a metal chair in front of a kiosk.
“He should be listening to the radio to attend the on-air classes,” Nyok stresses, referring to distant learning programmes on radio for students.
As a precaution to limit the spread of the virus, South Sudan announced in March the closure of schools, leaving many children at home without access to education.
The Government, with support from UNICEF, is trying to provide some education to keep students engaged by broadcasting classes on the radio. Part of Nyok’s duty is also to inform and encourage children to tune in.
“I asked the boy to tune in at the time for the classes,” Nyok says, looking at his wristwatch showing it is a few minutes past 10am, when the radio classes for lower secondary schools begin.
When seeing Nyok, 16-year-old Mathok Awan sits up in the chair, holding to his ears an old mobile phone with FM radio he had borrowed from his friend- listening to the radio broadcast.
In the exercise book that is lying on his lap, Mathok scribbles answers to a few questions he hears on the radio. “I take my notes. I also have a timetable. I read and follow the program.”
“Are you also protecting yourself from COVID19?” Nyok asks. “Yes, I also stopped going to gatherings like churches, no handshakes and I wash my hands regularly with soap and water,” Mathok answers while pointing at a bucket of water and a piece of soap under a wide table in front of the kiosk.
Nyok, now expressionless, looks straight into my face. “Some children are now more involved in business to support themselves during the lockdown,” he says. He shifts his attention to Mathok. “Do it and follow your education,” he waves to him and walks off to conduct a meeting with religious leaders.
While some of Nyok’s social mobilisers are conducting house to house social mobilisation visits, others are in a mobile van mounted with a sound system, driving slowly in the streets and in the suburbs as they pass key OCIVD19 messages.
“Sharing with people preventive measures to protect themselves from the coronavirus is a moral duty we have to accomplish.”
UNICEF's COVID-19 response in South Sudan is being implemented in partnership with the World Bank and is generously supported by UK Aid, the Government of Japan and USAID/OFDA.