Sudan's revolutionary medics turn activist networks against coronavirus

Doctors were on the front lines of last year's uprising against Omar Al Bashir, now they are deploying the same logistics against coronavirus

Sudanese men gather in prayers in a street in the capital Khartoum after breaking their fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on April 25, 2020, amid a curfew due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.  / AFP / ASHRAF SHAZLY
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Dr Alshafie Hussein spends every waking hour treating the sick at Jubra hospital, the main battleground against Covid-19 in Sudan's capital of Khartoum. Since early March, the 37-year-old hasn't seen his wife or child for fear of infecting them.

Even now, during Ramadan, he only interacts with his colleagues and patients and sleeps alone in an office near the hospital.

Dr Hussein is just one of the medical professionals who are once again rallying together to try and save Sudan.

"People trust us because we were on the frontlines during the revolution," said Dr Hussein, referring to the role doctors played in toppling former dictator Omar Al Bashir in 2019. "Now we have a duty to help our people again."

With Sudan already navigating a tumultuous transition to democracy, authorities are struggling to contain a Covid-19 outbreak. So far, health officials have detected 237 cases and pronounced 21 people dead from the disease.

But the real number is believed to be higher since a lack of testing kits is stopping the government from collecting data.

Filling the void are activists that spearheaded protests against Al Bashir. Along with doctors like Mr Hussein, other medical workers and activists are raising awareness about the disease, supplying hospitals with equipment and providing food to the poor.

Dr Mouzan Abdelrahan, 30, is just one person doing her part. Beyond working in a hospital in the city of Omdurman across the Nile River from the capital, she also speaks to communities regularly about the importance of hand-washing and social distancing. Most people welcome the information, yet others still believe that the pandemic isn't real.

"Some people are in denial because deep down they're panicking," she told The National over the phone.

The government is also sounding the alarm. On April 11, Sudan's Health Minister Akram Ali Altom told reporters that his country needs at least $120 million to fight the epidemic. He added that a large outbreak would quickly overwhelm a health sector, which suffers from a chronic shortage of ventilators and hospital beds due to decades of neglect during Al Bashir's repressive rule.

To date, no country has answered Mr Altom's plea and US sanctions held over from the old regime's support for terror groups including Al Qaeda also cut it off financially from donor organisations.

FILE PHOTO: Sudan's Minister of Health Akram Ali Altom speaks during a Reuters interview amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Khartoum, Sudan April 11, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday called for the US to drop the sanctions to help Khartoum manage the pandemic and also break the dire economic turmoil that sparked the protests that led to Al Bashir's ousting.

"The only way Sudan will ever be able to break out of this cycle of poverty and desperation is to be freed from the impediments of sanctions imposed at the time of the previous government," said Ms Bachelet.

But, support is coming from the network of overseas and exiled activists.

Solafa Saada, a Sudanese refugee living in the Netherlands, is the co-founder of Sharaa Hawajz, an NGO that distributed medical aid to doctors and pharmacists during the uprising last year.

Now, the group is collecting donations and paying local companies to produce much needed protective gear for medical workers.

"Importing supplies was going to be too expensive, so our group had to find ways for Sudan to produce them domestically," Ms Saada told The National. "One company we approached has already made a batch of medical gowns. Sanitizer is also being made and handed out to communities."

Despite Ms Saada's efforts, inflation and poverty are compounding the challenges to slow the spread of Covid-19. Communities reliant on the informal economy are particularly worried about going hungry if they stay indoors.

Coronavirus around the Middle East 

That didn't stop the government from imposing a three-week lockdown on Khartoum on April 19.

A sharp uptick in Covid-19 cases prompted the move, which also exposed tensions between local and national authorities – most notably, Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok fired the military governor of Khartoum for refusing to enforce the lockdown.

Once he was dismissed, a curfew was put in place while soldiers set up checkpoints to stop civilians from leaving their neighbourhoods.

Activists haven't decried the show of force, yet many say that financially supporting the poor is a more effective way to get people to stay inside.

The economic crisis has compelled activists like Hadia Hasballah to assume that role. As the head of the civil society group Al Harsat – or The Guardians – she notes that many Sudanese women are heading their households after losing their husbands and sons to the decades-long civil war that split Sudan into two countries.

"We have delivered 2,400 food packages to women-led households in Khartoum," Ms Hasballah said proudly. "It's a small bit of help that enables women to stay indoors for at least a couple of weeks."

While that may be true, the pattern elsewhere suggests that the government will have to maintain the lockdown for months to eliminate the spread. But the bigger issue may be the stigma surrounding the virus.

Just last month, about 300 people escaped quarantine hospitals after refusing to take a test. Medical workers say that many of those who fled showed symptoms of the virus.

"Patients are still understanding the disease," said Dr Hussein, the medic from Jabra hospital. "Many believe that they will surely die or be permanently ostracized by their communities if they contract Covid-19."

The misinformation has prompted health officials to provide counselling to patients. Medics say that attitudes are gradually changing, yet a catastrophic outbreak appears inevitable after so many patients escaped.

"Doctors and volunteers share the same motive to save this country," said Dr Hussein. "But we know that we don't have the capacity to fight this virus."