The fight against COVID-19: rebuilding a better Sudan
By Selva Ramachandran, Resident Representative, Mohammad Pournik, Senior Economist, Will Seal, Head of Communication, UNDP Sudan
A recent UN report highlights the impacts of COVID-19 on Sudan’s frail economy and society. Though the pandemic adds to the transition’s challenges, it provides an opportunity to shape a robust development pathway for Sudan.
COVID-19 has laid bare the fragility of Sudan’s economy and health system. Together, they add to the challenges facing Sudan’s transition and further threaten efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
Now in month three in Sudan, COVID-19 cases climb daily, as does the cost in lives. Lockdowns have been continuously extended, reaching eight weeks in the capital. But, Sudan’s struggle against contagious disease is not new. Outbreaks of influenza, malaria, dengue, and cholera are common, killing thousands. Combined, this may explain the public’s initial muted reaction to COVID-19, with significant efforts required to implement effective preventive measures, and overcome skepticism and tepid compliance with health advice.
Sudan also suffers from a high level of economic fragility. Its GDP has halved since 2011 and more than half the population live in poverty. Inflation is approaching 100 percent. 65 percent of the labour force, including the bulk of women, work in the informal sector and depend on daily labour to survive. Unfortunately, pandemic preventive measures have worsened the economic recession inherited by transitional authorities — a regular flashpoint for social and political tension.
The cost: COVID-19’s socioeconomic implications
Disruption to informal work, employing most urban populations, is expected to substantially increase unemployment and poverty. The likely 20 percent decline in remittances will reduce additional income keeping many families out of poverty. Expected declines in livestock exports to Saudi Arabia will reduce rural incomes.
Labour intensive services, including transport, petty trade, hospitality, food and beverage stalls, and the nascent tourism sector, are already impacted. This loss of income, combined with ever increasing basic commodity prices, will substantially increase urban poverty and may force returns to poor rural areas. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable, and as caregivers they face increased health risks, while curfews increase potential exposure to gender-based violence.
The continuation of lockdown measures in Khartoum and throughout the country is increasing the economic damage, and the decision has not been taken lightly. Sudan can look to successes in other developing countries — such as Vietnam — to contain the pandemic. This will enable better balancing of health restrictions and the safe resumption of economic activities.
Given the health and economic vulnerabilities exposed by COVID-19, responses must concurrently deal with the existing health emergency, mitigate immediate and mid-term socioeconomic impacts, and build resilience against future shocks of a similar nature.
Pre-revolutionary Sudan’s record of dealing with the underlying causes of vulnerability left much to be desired. The recurrence of crises — disease outbreaks, conflict, unemployment, and food insecurity — is evidence of the longevity of the structural weaknesses in the country’s development path. The unfortunate timing of this pandemic underlines the need for a profound national recalibration to ensure that the new and resilient Sudan leaves no one behind, and that ambitious SDG targets are in reach.
The response: addressing COVID-19 as one
Sudan’s efforts to contain COVID-19 are consistent with a Whole-of-State and Whole-of-Society approach. The decision to implement strong protective measures was made by the State Security and Defence Council, comprising members of the Sovereignty Council and Cabinet. Similarly, various Governmental and non-governmental mechanisms have coordinated multi-stakeholder responses.
Mitigation efforts to soften socioeconomic impacts have involved Government, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) including revolutionary committees, the private sector and UN agencies. Collaboratively, they have supported distribution of basic needs and health supplies and worked on behaviour change.
CSO involvement has demonstrated both the intrinsic value of, and their input in, a Whole-of-Society approach. There is significant potential and need to further expand their role, both in increased health advocacy and innovative service delivery, and they will have a vital on-going role: identifying support needs, providing assistance, and monitoring performance of public actors. Business as usual will be unable to achieve the desired rapid control of COVID-19, and safe recovery of the economy.
At a practical level, three months into Sudan’s pandemic and despite significant efforts, basic response needs remain critical. The need for testing heavily outweighs capacity and further efforts are required. In response, Global Fund resources have been mobilized to expand test volumes.
In addition, Sudan can (and is) increasing information campaigns to drive urgently needed hygiene and health behaviour change. At the same time, the supply of soap, sanitizer, and personal protective equipment (PPE) must be further expanded, and more public handwashing facilities created in dense urban areas.
Fiscally the Government has taken steps to mitigate the rise in poverty, despite limited fiscal space. In response to an expected revenue decline of more than one third — an impact of the expected recession, and business protections — expenditures were cut by only 10 percent. The Government is moving ahead with a civil service salary adjustment that will result in a 68 percent increase in the budget allocation. Additionally, they are accepting an additional budget deficit of 7.7 percent of GDP for stimulus measures — commendable compared to other developing countries, largely on the order of under 2 percent.
However, the Government should take additional measures to support those most affected, notably female-headed households and residents of urban slums. The full potential of a Whole-of-Society approach must be explored. Innovative, livelihood-maintaining solutions — like aggressive contact tracing via revolutionary committees and unemployed youth — must be found for the millions who depend on daily labour, while laying the foundations for reopening the economy.
Seeking to mobilize the public and Sudanese diaspora, April 2020 saw the Prime Minister’s “Stand up for Sudan” initiative successfully launch, aiming to secure financial support for economic recovery. The diaspora is willing and able, but, international banking restrictions make it difficult to contribute directly to the Government. Consequently, it is imperative the international community hastens delisting Sudan from the US State Sponsor of Terrorism List to ensure Sudan’s global economic reintegration. It is equally important for the international community to support the response to the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19.
The recovery: the how of rebuilding better
Sudan’s recovery from COVID-19 requires a Whole-of-Society approach. As the UN’s technical lead for the socioeconomic response, UNDP’s interventions support recovery efforts, and strengthen civil society and public sector capacity and continuity for planning and delivering development. Broadly, we aim to safeguard jobs and invest in impacted sectors to smooth economic recovery — with women at the center — once restrictions ease.
As an economic and health protection effort, UNDP Sudan partnered with women’s groups and CSOs to produce soap and PPE and intends to scale these efforts. Focusing on small and micro-enterprises, and youth and women, domestic PPE production is promising for job retention and creation, critically needed for health supply chain protection, and support for the future safe return of other sectors i.e. agriculture.
UNDP is seeking to expand agricultural development through livelihood creation, wheat production to reduce dependence on imports, and infrastructure investment — like solar water pumps, water canals, and wind turbines. Capitalizing on Sudan’s ecological potential will drive job creation, national food self-reliance, reduced reliance on fossil fuels, and increased but sustainable exports.
Supporting Sudan’s most vulnerable, we stand ready to partner with the Government and the private sector to identify and address problems faced by micro and small enterprises — those most adversely affected by the pandemic. Drawing on UNDP’s global network we intend to offer practical solutions for challenges faced by this critical, livelihood-driving sector.
And, UNDP will continue to advocate for increased fiscal allocation to the response and raising revenues in an equitable manner, through progressive direct taxation of income and property.
These are only a few of the efforts required to mitigate the long-term impacts of COVID-19 (detailed in the full report). Rebuilding a better Sudan was a challenging prospect before the pandemic, which has further highlighted the fundamental flaws in Sudan’s past development trajectory, and the need for more resilient and inclusive economic and health systems. Now, the challenge is greater, with the health system requiring urgent support.
The crisis has demonstrated the need for a strong State, capable of marshalling Sudan’s human and natural resources to break the vicious cycle of poverty and fragility. It has also laid bare the extent of inter-state disparities in the limited capacity that exists and underpinned the urgency of addressing head on the issue of inequality.
This is one of the greatest crises to hit Sudan, creating new pressures on its fragile transition and its embattled people. But, a time of change is a time of opportunity. Now is the time to address the drivers of inequality and develop practical solutions — in time for the next crisis, and a New Sudan.