By Gale Julius Dada
Despite the world's current focus on healthcare workers battling the COVID-19 pandemic, South Sudan's youth are fighting a different battle — one against misinformation and online hate speech sparked by the virus.
South Sudan’s Ministry of Health confirmed the first case of COVID-19 on April 5, identifying a United Nations (UN) aid worker who arrived to the country on February 28. The announcement was followed by social media attacks against foreigners and aid workers, sparking xenophobic messages alleging that the UN imported the virus into the country.
Now, in a bid to counter the growing hate speech, youth advocacy groups have formed a consortium called Access to Information and Rumor Verification in South Sudan (AIRSS) to raise awareness and dispel fake news about COVID-19. In a nation where six out of ten COVID-19 rumors are untrue, according to UNICEF, the stakes are high.
The collaboration initiated an online and mobile-based campaign dubbed Hagiga Wahid (which translates to "one truth"), enabling the public to verify suspicious information by either texting or calling 228 to receive accurate information.
Emmanuel Lobijo, executive director youth-led peacebuilding organization Junub Open Space, said young people play crucial role in the battle against the Coronavirus.
"We verified more than 100 Facebook posts carrying hate speeches on the first day the Coronavirus was confirmed in South Sudan. Most of them were incitement against foreigners,” Lobijo said. “We reported them to Facebook and most of those posts were brought down by Facebook."
The youth group are also using bicycles fitted with megaphones to convey messages about COVID-19 throughout their communities.
"The fight towards ensuring our community is COVID-19-free needs a lot of efforts from all corners and as of now a lot of hate speech misinformation and fake news have taken over, but our fight is hate-free South Sudan," Lobijo (pictured above in red) said.
Reech Malual, Executive Director of Screen of Rights, a Juba-based human rights and peacebuilding organization started an online peace campaign after seeing overwhelming cases of hate speech and xenophobic messages shared on social media.
“Spreading hatred and inciting against a group based on belonging will only frustrate our efforts in the fight against the deadly virus,” Malual said.
“This is a critical time for all the inhabitants," he said. "Including foreign nationals with permanent residence status or working within our country. The virus doesn’t segregate."
“We need to embrace all the UN agencies and NGOs in a collective effort against COVID-19.”
Chuol Rambang Chol, chairperson of the South Sudan Peace and Reconciliation Commission has made a call for action.
“Fellow South Sudanese, Coronavirus is a global pandemic, it does not discriminate whether you are a man or woman, white or black, Christian or Muslim, young or old,” Chol said.
“It is threatening our health and peace. We therefore, must come together to protect ourselves, families, our communities and the peace that we have just secured by forming the revitalized government of national unity.”
During his April 9 national address, President Salva Kiir urged the people of South Sudan to exercise restraint and shun hate speech and xenophobic utterances against the humanitarian community in South Sudan.
“I must warn you that COVID-19 can be brought to South Sudan by anybody including South Sudanese," Kiir said.
“I therefore, call upon you to exercise restraint and avoid hate speeches and xenophobic utterances against our guests and those who have come to provide services to us from different countries and organizations."
Photos: Gale Julius Dada