South Sudan: Jonglei State clashes leave hundreds dead and injured as COVID-19 reduces ICRC surgical capacity by 30%

21 May 2020
South Sudan: Jonglei State clashes leave hundreds dead and injured as COVID-19 reduces ICRC surgical capacity by 30%
One of the general ward of this ICRC supported hospital hosts several patients who were wounded during intercommunal clashes that took place in Jonglei. Florian Bastien / ICRC

Juba (ICRC) – An eruption of intercommunal violence in Jonglei State in north-eastern South Sudan has left hundreds dead, many more injured and thousands displaced. COVID-19 restrictions make it far more difficult to evacuate the wounded by air and provide surgical care for trauma injuries.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) evacuated 23 people by air this week, but its beds are nearly full, and estimates that COVID-19 measures reduced its surgical capacity by 30 per cent.*

In 2020, to date, the ICRC has treated more than 320 people with gunshot wounds – nearly half of the total number treated in the whole of 2019 (769).

"If we see the same level of violence that we saw in 2019 we can expect a greater loss of life and deeper suffering as COVID-19 hampers our ability to respond," said James Reynolds, the ICRC's head of delegation in South Sudan. "If COVID-19 continues to spread and overwhelms South Sudan's already fragile health system, the capacity to treat gunshot injuries will be even lower. Many health care facilities are also dealing with spikes in diseases such as malaria that are brought on by the rainy season."

In February and early March 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic reached South Sudan, similar clashes between armed men in Jonglei State injured hundreds of people and prompted the ICRC to mobilize all its surgical units. In a three-week period, 144 people were evacuated by air to ICRC surgical wards—a patient-load that would be impossible to care for today with the limitations that COVID-19 brings.

"We cannot provide surgical care for people injured in violence to the same scale as we did last year due to COVID-19," said Ana Lucia Bueno, the health coordinator for the ICRC in South Sudan. "It's difficult to rotate in surgeons. We can't responsibly bring many people from an area without COVID-19 cases to one with them for surgery.

Physical distancing measures meant we had to reduce the number of beds in our wards. Our concern is that if violence continues, many people will lose their lives to gunshot injuries simply because they will be unable to get medical care."

A South Sudan Red Cross volunteer and a nurse working for Médecins Sans Frontières were among those killed in the violence which broke out on May 16.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of our colleagues in the humanitarian community, including at the South Sudan Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières," said Reynolds. "Their deaths are a stark reminder of the senseless loss of life resulting from these attacks. We call on all those engaged in the violence to respect human life and dignity, and to take tangible steps to prevent further violent clashes."

*Notes to editors:
The ICRC had to reduce the number of beds in its wards to put in place physical distancing measures. It also lost its ability to quickly scale up the number of hospital beds in the event of a large patient influx due to the need to implement COVID-19 preventive measures. Before COVID-19, its surgical ward in Akobo had a maximum 35-bed capacity and Juba Military Hospital had 80. Today, the two wards together have an 80-bed capacity (Akobo with 30, Juba with 50), a reduction of 30% in bed-capacity.

For further information, please contact:
Ali Yousef, ICRC Juba, +211 912 360 038
Aidah Khamis Woja, ICRC Juba, +211 925 230 500
Crystal Wells, ICRC Nairobi, +254 716 897 265