The top United Nations official in South Sudan says 57 workers with the U.N. mission there have tested positive for COVID-19 since April.
David Shearer said the peacekeepers could have contracted the virus due to what he described as “continuous close interactions with the South Sudanese population.”
Shearer told VOA’s South Sudan In Focus the cases include the components of military, police and civilian personnel based at a U.N. camp in the capital, Juba.
“Forty-five of those have recovered and sadly one person has died and that is across the military, the police and civilian members. And it really reflects that our people are working closely with the South Sudanese, moving around and talking to them, and meeting. So, in some way it is not surprising we have that number and even more as time goes on," he said.
The cases make up only a small fraction of the approximately 16,000 personnel with the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
The first case of COVID-19 in South Sudan was a U.N. civilian employee who traveled to the country from the Netherlands in February. Health officials in Juba said she did not present any symptoms until several weeks after her arrival.
The second and third cases were also U.N. employees who had links with the first case.
Shearer, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative in South Sudan, said some of the mission workers tested positive due to what he calls "links" with South Sudanese people.
“Nearly all of that has come from the South Sudanese population because we have very little influx of our people coming into the country and anyone coming into the country is quarantined for 14 days. So, we are confident that we are not bringing the virus in from outside. So, it is certainly all coming from communities prevalent in South Sudan,” he said.
The UNMISS chief said his office is taking extra precautions to ensure that troops and other personnel are not shaken by the number of positive cases.
Shearer said the virus also could have spread among the internally displaced persons sheltering at crowded U.N.-run camps in the country.
“Given that the POC (protection of civilian) sites are pretty congested, that means that there is a greater possibility of people contracting it. Although we have put in a lot of education about the spread of coronavirus, and additional water, soap and things like that so that people can take proper precaution, it is likely that it has taken over the POC sites,” he said.
Shearer did not disclose the number of internally displaced persons who have tested positive for COVID-19.
He said despite the pandemic, UNMISS continues to discharge its mandate normally and respond to security needs of the affected population. He said any UNMISS worker who tests positive for the virus is immediately isolated and their job is covered by other staff members.
According to data released by health officials on Tuesday, South Sudan has registered a total of 2,007 COVID-19 positive cases, 279 recoveries and 38 deaths.