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Airborne vaccine: The flights taking on COVID-19 in South Sudan

The World Food Programme-managed United Nations Humanitarian Air Service takes critical assistance to vulnerable people
, Marwa Awad
South Sudan
UNHAS, which is managed by WFP, has so far delivered 30,000 COVID-19 vaccines across South Sudan. Photo: WFP

Kicking up dust 10ft high, an aircraft touches down on the airstrip in Pochalla – a remote town – a two-hour flight east of Juba, South Sudan’s capital. The co-pilot jumps out of the plane and hands an icebox to aid workers who whisk it away to a hospital. 

This is one of the many journeys carried out by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) which has so far transported 30,000 COVID-19 vaccines countrywide on behalf of the Government and in partnership with the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

UNHAS, which is managed by the World Food Programme (WFP), is the UN’s humanitarian air service – providing regular passenger and light cargo services to more than 300 humanitarian organizations in 57 locations in South Sudan every month.

An UNHAS staff member finalizes boarding documents for vaccines destined for Malakal in the north of the country. Photo: WFP
An UNHAS staff member finalizes boarding documents for vaccines destined for Malakal in the north of the country. Photo: WFP/Marwa Awad

Throughout the pandemic, UNHAS has evacuated frontline aid workers from the field and transported personal protective equipment, emergency health kits, ventilators, face shields and surgical masks to protect health workers and enable them to remain in the field.

Denis Makhu, a project officer with the Norwegian People’s Aid and one of WFP’s implementing partners, is one of many frontline workers in South Sudan who risk their lives to serve vulnerable people.

Having received his first vaccine means he is enabled to continue with his life-saving work.

“It was the right thing to do for me, my family and everyone around me,” said the 35-year-old. “When I found out the vaccine shipment had arrived in Pochalla, I was relieved,” he added.

South Sudan is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Roughly the size of Texas, it has a road network of 20,000 kilometers - only 200 kilometres of which is paved. 

With such poor infrastructure, much of the country is difficult to reach and remote towns such as Pochalla are only accessible by UNHAS flights for much of the year.   

“South Sudan is the largest operation in the world for UNHAS. The needs are enormous here and our fleet and pilots are working around the clock to keep humanitarian operations moving as smoothly as possible,” says Geoffrey Mwangi, chief air transport officer for UNHAS in South Sudan.

As the world’s newest country marks 10 years of independence, over 7 million people – 60 percent of the population – are uncertain of where their next meal will come from due to intensified conflict, the effects of climate change and, more recently, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

But humanitarians can only help vaccines become available – then it's a matter of take-up. That is why Makhu, while continuing his work as a frontline aid worker, has invested his time in raising awareness among a group of farmers in his community in Pochalla, who have also made the decision to get the vaccine. 

UNHAS is delivering Covid-19 vaccines on behalf of the Government and in partnership with WHO and UNICEF. Photo: WFP
UNHAS is delivering COVID-19 vaccines on behalf of the Government and in partnership with WHO and UNICEF. Photo: WFP/Marwa Awad

One of these farmers, Opiew Cham, was initially hesitant about taking the vaccine. After speaking to Makhu, he joined him along with two other farmers to get their first vaccines at the local field hospital.

“I took the vaccine to protect myself and protect my family,” says the 40-year-old, who grows maize to sell in the local market. 

“I learned that because I am in contact with many people during my work, without the vaccine I would expose myself to the virus and eventually spread it to my family and others.” 

Cham’s wife has also taken her first vaccine while his four young children are not yet eligible. 

“I advise others to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their children. I want my children to have a good future,” said Cham. 

Both Cham and Makhu plan to take their second vaccine shot in a few days. 

Generous contributions from the European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations department (ECHO) and the European Union’s General Directorate for International Cooperation and Development (DEVCO) have enabled UNHAS to continue operating and supporting our humanitarian partners in delivering life-saving assistance to health workers, health providers and vulnerable people in South Sudan. 


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