In South Sudan, Nurses at Loreto Clinic Improvising Protective Gear in COVID-19 Fight

Nurses and trainee health care-givers at Mary Ward Primary Health Care Clinic in Rumbek, South Sudan pose for a photo outside the Clinic on the eve of International Nurses Day.
Credit: Sr. Orla Treacy

As the world marked the International Nurses Day on Tuesday, May 12, celebrating the fearlessness, hard work and selflessness of nurses who continue to put their lives on the line to save those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, our attention at ACI Africa was drawn to a clinic in South Sudan where health caregivers are fighting all odds in times of the pandemic to attend to the sick.

At Mary Ward Primary Health Care Clinic, a health facility run by the Loreto Sisters in the Diocese of Rumbek in South Sudan, a group of health caregivers have resorted to improvising personal safety equipment for themselves and for their patients to avoid contracting the coronavirus, which has already been reported in the country.

“Everyone is anxious about the coming of coronavirus. We do our best to prepare but our resources are limited. We are currently trying to improvise. Our interns are all learning how to sew and are making face masks for themselves and for the local community,” says Sr. Orla Treacy who oversees the running of the clinic.

In an interview with ACI Africa on the International Nurses day, Sr. Orla said that nurses were grappling with a number of challenges owing to COVID-19, key among them lack of protective gear and lack of cooperation from the residents who, she says, are finding it difficult to adhere to safety regulations.

“One of the challenges the team has got when going out to speak about coronavirus is the challenge of culture,” Sr. Orla says, adding, “Our local community struggles to adapt to new practices. Shaking hands in the culture is a sign of acknowledging the other person; when you refuse to shake hands there is a belief that you are ignoring the dignity of the person.”

According to the Irish nun, social distancing is also difficult to practice in the eastern Africa country where strong culture dictates that family members share a meal in one tray.

There is fear that the virus may spread fast in Rumbek because of its location, the Catholic nun says, underscoring the need for people to adhere to safety measures put across by the government.

“Rumbek is located in the center of the country; all trucks heading north pass through Rumbek. There is fear that we cannot escape coronavirus but we do our best to prepare and protect ourselves,” Sr. Orla says.

She however exudes confidence that the South Sudanese community, which has battled many other challenges before will eventually defeat the coronavirus.

“Our community struggles with so many challenges on a day to day basis. Hunger, insecurity and sickness are very much part of life. For our elders, coronavirus is just another challenge that they believe they will face and defeat as they do with all struggles in life,” says Sr. Orla.

To help create awareness around COVID-19, nurses at the clinic are using Good News Radio, the diocesan community-based radio station, to share the information on coronavirus in two local languages – Dinka and Jur Beli.

“They (nurses) have even composed a poem to help the people to remember hand washing and social distancing,” the 47-year-old nun who has been in South Sudan since 2006 says.

To mark their special day, the six nurses, eight healthcare trainees, interns and support staff at the clinic are conducting mobile clinics in various communities in the diocese of Rumbek.

“The clinic team have decided to go out to the village this week and celebrate on Saturday. They are conducting mobile clinics in the local area,” says Sr. Orla, referencing May 16.

“There is concern that malaria may become forgotten as everyone focuses on coronavirus,” the Loreto nun says, expressing fear that other diseases are being ignored as all countries across the globe focus all attention towards the fight against COVID-19.

Mary Ward Primary Health Care Clinic, which opened in 2016 welcomes four graduates to work as interns at the clinic every year.

“These interns come from our own past pupils and other schools around,” Sr. Orla says, explaining the recruitment of nurses at the clinic.

Among the six nurses, two are former interns at the clinic and another two are health professionals trained in other health institutions in the country. There is also a Kenyan and Ugandan at the clinic.

“All the trainee nurses at the clinic have gone through our internship program in the clinic and are in different nursing schools in CHTI Wau, Juba and Nairobi,” says the award winning nun who also manages other projects in the world’s youngest nation.

She adds in reference to the trainee nurses, “When the coronavirus closed down the schools, they chose to come back and work with us here.”

Initially the trainee nurses educated the community on coronavirus and hand washing. Today, along with the nursing team, they offer health talks and mobile clinics, the Catholic nun says.

“Our interns are all waiting and hoping to apply for nursing school and medical schools as soon as the learning institutes re-open,” she says.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, Bishops have commended the nurses for their heroism and self-sacrifice as the country battle against Covid-19.

In their statement on the year’s International Nurses Day Tuesday, May 12, the Southern African Catholics Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) stated, “We join President Cyril Ramaphosa and the whole country in thanking our nurses in South Africa who, being at the frontline of the response against the COVID-19, have shown us an example of heroism and self-sacrifice.”

The Bishops noted that with over 10,000 Covid-19 infections in the Southern African country, the work of nurses in the country had gone beyond just screening and treating patients and that it is now “more than a profession, but a vocation that involves dedication to the common good.”

“Besides providing treatment to those infected, nurses have provided much-needed support to the dying and those who have lost loved ones because of the disease,” the Bishops said, and added, “Our nurses are more than nurses.”

Echoing President Cyril Ramaphosa’s words, the Bishops said, “They (nurses) are community-builders, mentors, counsellors, and educators who provide psychosocial support beyond the medical domain. Without our nurses, particularly those working in under-served parts of the country, South Africa’s fight against Covid-19 would be lost.”

The heads of the Catholic Church in the three southern Africa nations of Botswana, Lesotho, and South Africa called on the government and other stakeholders to always ensure the nurses as well as other frontline healthcare workers, especially those working in marginalized and remote communities, have adequate access to the means to protect themselves against the disease “today, tomorrow and the days after”.

“According to the latest statistics, over 500 healthcare workers across the country have tested positive for Covid-19, of which several have died, including nurses,” the members of SACBC said.

“We mourn these unsung heroes whilst keeping them, their families and their colleagues at the frontline, in our prayers,” the Bishops said in their May 12 collective statement signed by Archbishop William Slattery.


ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
[email protected]