Even though the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in South Sudan, the government is lifting several restrictions that are intended to control the spread of the pandemic.
A South Sudan COVID-19 task force member said Thursday that regional flights would resume, and that markets, shops and bars would be allowed to reopen.
The South Sudan Doctors Union called the decision rushed.
"The South Sudan Doctors Union does not see urgency in relaxing the rules and directives of the lockdown at a time when our nation is experiencing [an] exponential rise in COVID-19 cases and serious violations of control measures," the union said in a statement Friday.
Dr. Akuay Cham, an associate professor of public health at the University of Juba, questioned whether the decision was based on sound reasoning.
"It is contrary to what is going on, on the ground. Cases are increasing and we are moving in another direction, and this for me is very sad. I don't know if the government is trying to prioritize the economic impact of this pandemic rather than lives," Cham told VOA's South Sudan in Focus.
Over the last 10 days, the number of confirmed cases in South Sudan shot up from six to 90. Sixteen new cases were reported Thursday.
The decision to ease restrictions was made during Thursday's cabinet meeting, chaired by President Salva Kiir.
Dr. Richard Laku, a member of the task force, told reporters Thursday night that the country's curfew would start three hours later at 10 p.m. and that other restrictions would be lifted.
"Reopening internal travel by air, land and river, allowing regional flights back to South Sudan, reopening markets, shops, tea places, bars and restaurants. However, schools, churches, mosques, nightclubs will remain closed. Sports, funerals and other public gatherings will remain suspended," Laku said.
Although the lifting of restrictions was to take effect in 72 hours after Thursday's announcement, some Juba restaurants and bars already reopened Friday.
Laku urged people to continue to wear masks.
"Wearing masks is mandatory in meetings, public places, buses, and bodabodas and rickshaws. People should also continue experiencing thorough washing of hands and using disinfectants," Laku said.
Laku did not take questions from reporters, and calls to his office for comment Friday went unanswered.
Repeated calls to Dr. Magok Kuol Gordon, the incident manager for the COVID-19 task force, and Ateny Wek Ateny, Kiir's press secretary, also went unanswered.
South Sudan joins Uganda and Rwanda in lifting some COVID-19 protective measures, but while Uganda and Rwanda have shown progress in slowing the spread of the virus in their countries, South Sudan has not.
Cham noted that South Sudan has one COVID-19 testing machine and a public health laboratory and only a few isolation centers.
"I would expect the government to establish isolation centers, and the government to increase mass testing, so that we know where we are when the disease is spreading," Cham told VOA.
Right now, most people known or suspected to have COVID-19 in South Sudan self-isolate because of the lack of quarantine centers.
The head of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), David Shearer, predicted the number of confirmed cases in South Sudan would increase because, he said, the virus has spread to a broader community.
He said decisions about lifting restrictions should be based on good science and international protocols.
"We don't need to make them up; they're all there and are being used all over the world. Once those measures are in place, all those critical activities that can be done safely should continue right across South Sudan. If we don't do that, many more people will die – not from COVID-19, but from other problems, like intercommunal fighting, hunger and disease," Shearer said in an online news conference.
Shearer said the work of U.N. agencies across South Sudan must continue uninterrupted during the pandemic in order to save lives.
"If it doesn't, the ramifications of COVID-19 will be much worse," he said. "We should learn the lessons from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Eleven thousand people died from Ebola, but many, many more died from preventable problems like hunger, cholera and malaria. That's why the U.N.'s work must go on despite COVID-19. Food supplies, health services, reconciliation activities to bring peace between warring communities — all these actions make a huge difference in this country and must continue."
The U.N. has had to rotate staff at health centers and peace-building efforts during the pandemic, but Shearer said UNMISS had played a decisive role in setting up South Sudan's COVID-19 protective measures.
"U.N. agencies and UNMISS have already made a major contribution, including helping set up the National Public Health Laboratory and rehabilitation labs in Yambio, Nimule and Wau, providing technical and logistical support for national surveillance, laboratory testing, contact tracing and case management through WHO," Shearer said.
He noted the U.N. had also prepositioned a year's worth of nutritional supplies for refugees and vulnerable families, set up community handwashing sites, and provided tents and solar lighting for hospitals.