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Former South Sudan Refugee Acclaimed for Saving COVID-19 Patients in South Africa

A health worker checks the temperature of an elderly patient at the emergency entrance of the Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, Jan. 11, 2021.

A former refugee from Sudan’s civil war who survived torture and homelessness to become a doctor is winning acclaim for saving the lives of COVID-19 patients in South Africa.

Dr. Emmanuel Malish Taban was recently named one of the 100 most influential Africans of 2020 by London-based New African magazine. The U.S. embassy in Juba, South Sudan, congratulated Taban on its Facebook page for the continental recognition and his work treating COVID-19 patients at his South African clinic.

Dr. Emmanuel Malish Taban was recently named one of the 100 most influential Africans of 2020 by London-based New African magazine.
Dr. Emmanuel Malish Taban was recently named one of the 100 most influential Africans of 2020 by London-based New African magazine.

“Dr. Taban’s extraordinary story and never-say-die spirit has become a source of great inspiration for millions of young Africans who find themselves in often hopeless situations,” said the New African.

Taban successfully uses a procedure known as flexible fiberoptic bronchoscopy on critically ill COVID-19 patients. Taban, a pulmonologist, uses the technique to suck out mucous that collected in patients’ air passages, enabling them to breathe.

“The majority of my [COVID] patients, over 90% of them, survived,” Taban told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus. “It is a procedure that has not been used for a long time. I think because of the fear [of infection], that is why everybody was not able to do bronchoscopies.”

Helped by Catholic charities

Taban, 43, grew up in what was then the southern part of Sudan, mired in a two-decade civil war against the government in Khartoum. In 1994, at age 17, he was arrested and tortured by military intelligence agents who accused him of being a rebel sympathizer.

He fled after he was released, initially crossing into Eritrea via the border town of Gadarif to seek asylum. He was arrested for illegal entry but soon released.

Taban said he was helped by some Catholic charities and South Sudanese living in Asmara to enter Ethiopia. From there he traveled south by bus and by foot through Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique to reach South Africa.

Missionaries offer financial assistance

In 1995, Taban said two South Sudanese missionaries working in South Africa helped to pay for his secondary and university studies at the Medical University of Southern Africa (MEDUNSA), University of Pretoria and University of Witwatersrand. He also studied pulmonology in the Hermes university system in Europe and earned a diploma in endobronchial ultrasound and lung cancer staging at the University of Amsterdam.

“In South Sudan, we have the capabilities to match the rest of the world,” he told VOA. “We need to make sure that the children of South Sudan hear [my] story that there is a child who used to be homeless, who used beg for food on the streets, has done something great in the world.”’

He said he would like to build schools across South Sudan to help children get a good education.

Preventive measures aren't followed

Regarding South Africa, Taban said not enough people are following Ministry of Health preventive measures to avoid contracting COVID-19. The country has recorded more than 1.3 million cases of coronavirus with more than 37,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center.

“People are not quarantining, people are not social distancing, people are not sanitizing,” he said.

“I think saving lives is all that matters to me,” he added. “I don’t enjoy losing my patients, I don’t believe people die because it is their time. People die because of negligence and we don’t try enough to save those lives.”

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    John Tanza

    John Tanza works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is the managing editor and host of the South Sudan In Focus radio program.