The global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk that reinfection poses make it clear that no country is safe until all are safe. Countries need to minimise pandemic risks in coming weeks and months until vaccines become available. This is equally true for all states. But the difficulties are considerably greater for fragile states.
Fragile states escape easy definition, but the term tends to refer to countries with weak state capacity that struggle to provide the basic elements of governance. Such states are less resilient to economic shocks. They also have limited financial capacity to support struggling firms and households. Typically, their health care systems are weak. Finally, they have lower state capacity to design and implement context-appropriate mitigation measures.
Sudan is a prime example of states facing these dimensions of fragility, now made worse by COVID-19. As part of its initiative to support countries transitioning out of fragility, the International Growth Centre has been engaging closely with Sudan’s transitional government on economic reforms since November 2019.
Before COVID-19, Sudan’s civilian-led transitional government was on unsteady ground. It had only just formed in September 2019 after popular protests led to the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir as president. After 30 years of political oppression and economic mismanagement under military rule, the transitional government inherited many challenges.
These include having to reform an unsustainable fuel subsidy policy that has been contributing to the country’s growing fiscal deficit and rising debt. Sudan’s debt stands at a staggering $60 billion.
An estimated 65% of Sudan’s 44 million people live in poverty. The stakes of economic reform are therefore sky high. Should the government not delicately navigate these difficult reforms, or fail to secure the $4 billion in international assistance needed to make a much-needed social protection programme viable, it faces potential removal by a population exasperated by years of economic hardships.
The fragility of the situation was chillingly demonstrated by the attempted assassination of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in March 2020. It was in this extremely strained political and economic context that COVID-19 hit Sudan.
Sudan put in place measures to limit transmission early on in the pandemic. Nevertheless, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc, particularly in Khartoum. Sudan is now among the most affected African countries in terms of numbers of confirmed cases and deaths.
It is probable that Sudan’s poverty will increase more than African average estimates. This is because of the country’s economic vulnerabilities, weak social protection mechanisms, and the large portion of the population in informal and insecure employment.
This situation is likely to push the share of the population living below the poverty line closer to 80%. Such severe poverty is not just an unspeakable hardship for the Sudanese population. It poses a real threat to Sudan’s attempted transition towards a civilian-led, democratic government.
Despite the country’s dire health and economic situation, Sudan has yet to access emergency funding made available by the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. This is despite loans having been granted to over 100 other developing countries. Access difficulties may be due to sanctions imposed by the US, which continues to designate the country as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1993.
But Iran, similarly under US sanctions and designated on the state sponsor of terrorism list, has recently been granted US$50 million in emergency funding from the World Bank.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has made a direct plea that Sudan be allowed to access the international assistance needed to confront the pandemic. He cited worsening health and economic impacts on the Sudanese people, as well as the potential of “unthinkable negative spillovers” on regional and international stability.
Not giving Sudan the support needed to combat COVID-19 has grievous implications. It imperils Sudan’s transition out of military dictatorship and it continues to punish the people of Sudan for acts they took no part in. It also undermines global efforts to curb COVID-19, which poses a danger to the region and beyond.
If Sudan cannot overcome COVID-19, it will be left behind as the rest of the world recovers and moves on. It will be pushed back into isolation just as the door was opening for it to rejoin the international community and transition to democracy, aspirations for which Sudanese have sacrificed dearly.
Sudan has the potential to be a valuable and active member of the international community. Its transitional government has taken critical steps to make amends for the harm caused by the previous regime. This includes demonstrating continuing support for the United States’ counter-terrorism efforts and proactively dealing with victims’ compensation claims.
Prime Minister Hamdok has played an important role in reviving negotiations between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over equitable sharing of the waters of the Blue Nile. Sudan’s geostrategic position, spanning the Horn and North Africa, makes it an integral part of efforts to combat illegal migration, human trafficking and terrorism.
But Sudan can only be a constructive ally if it is functional and does not collapse. For this, international assistance is crucial at this time. It is in all of our interests that Sudan is given the support needed to fight COVID-19 and to keep progressing towards a more effective, democratic state.