JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - South Sudan's government has announced fines for not wearing a face mask or social distancing in public to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.
Anyone who fails to wear a mask or observe social distancing rules will be charged 6,000 South Sudanese pounds, the equivalent of about $10 on the black market, according to the government's national task force on COVID-19.
The government also said it would impose a $100 fine for unauthorized facilities that admit COVID-19 patients.
Some people said the fines are too high in a country where civil servants make only $10 a month, while others said it will teach people a lesson.
Nancy Gasim, a resident of the capital, Juba, told VOA's South Sudan in Focus program it is unfair to impose large fines on citizens, many of whom struggle to feed their families.
"Instead of fining citizens, let the government at least give free masks, as other ordinary countries are doing. Then the curfew time — we find most of our people are living from hand to mouth. You find the women on the streets making fish and they are staying on the streets making porridge at night up to until like 11, so where will they feed their family from?" said Gasim. The curfew runs from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. local time.
Nunu Diana, an activist with the national NGO Young Positives South Sudan, said the penalties are unwarranted because the task force hasn't done enough to educate the public about the pandemic.
"The task force should have informed these people about the dangers and the effects of COVID-19 by going deep to the grass-roots levels, market areas; that is where people are crowded," Diana told South Sudan in Focus.
She said health officials should have installed water points around markets for people to wash their hands and distributed face masks "to ensure that people have to wear these masks" while moving around in crowds.
Diana also said several government agencies do not adhere to COVID-19 directives. She said offices of certain ministries are often overcrowded, with many people sharing one room.
Patrick Male, a boda-boda driver in the Thongping residential area of Juba, said the penalties will negatively impact the drivers' income because most passengers do not have face masks.
"There are other customers who cannot even afford to buy masks, right now if we are to take a person from Thongping to Custom [Market], at times even paying that money for boda-boda is challenging, so I am suggesting that please, the government should at least help the community by supplying some masks so that we can also be safe," said Male.
Male said the cheapest masks in Juba cost about 1,000 South Sudanese pounds, or a little over $1.50 on the black market.
Richard Laku, chairperson of the COVID-19 national committee and incident manager of the national task force, said the complaints are not genuine. He said the task force tried other measures in the past but the public did not respect the orders. He said the fines will protect people's lives.
"Why are they complaining [that it's] high? Why don't they want to wear masks in the first place?" Laku said. He said people were told "politely," but said they don't want to listen.
"Six-thousand [pounds] is not high with the life and risk of the individuals. When you are going to lose a life compared to 6,000; six thousand is nothing," Laku told VOA.
Juba resident Gabriel Yokwe said he supports imposing the penalties because it will force people to take the pandemic seriously.
"Looking at the fines doesn't necessarily surprise me or make me feel uncomfortable at all, it rather reminds me that I should still always observe these things and it's mainly for the purposes of my own safety and the people around me," Yokwe said.
The task force also warned that people who violate the curfew will be detained for 24 hours to undergo sensitization about the dangers of not adhering to COVID-19 protocols.