Coronavirus: Former Labour leader David Shearer says South Sudan health situation 'pretty dire', fears tens of thousands could perish

Former Labour leader David Shearer says the health situation in South Sudan is "pretty dire" with fears tens of thousands of people could die of COVID-19.

Shearer left politics in New Zealand in 2017, heading to the UN mission in South Sudan - a country ravaged by civil war and drought in recent years.

While the African nation has no recorded cases of COVID-19 to date, Shearer told Newshub Nation on Saturday only about 38 tests have been undertaken.

"Almost inevitably, I think that COVID-19 is here but we just don't know it yet," Shearer said.

"This health situation here is pretty dire. I mean, 90 percent of the health facilities here are run by international organisations just to keep things going."

Shearer said the nation's infectious disease hospital has about 35 beds, with about 10 ventilators. South Sudan has a population of 12 million.

The real fear is for people in camps, Shearer said. The UN is looking after 200,000 people in various camps and is urging them to social-distance as much as possible.

"If corona gets in amongst those people in those camps that will run through it just so quickly - and we'll potentially have a very, very high death toll here because a lot of people are weak as well," he told Newshub Nation.

Projections suggest tens of thousands could die in just the camps alone, Shearer said.

He said many citizens don't have access to mainstream media and are unaware of the global situation.

"While we're kind of glued to the screens, you know, day and night, looking at what's happening across the world and trying to work out how our situation is going to be, these people don't have that," Shearer said. "So it's difficult for them to comprehend."

David Shearer in South Sudan.
David Shearer in South Sudan. Photo credit: File

Shearer said the UN had implemented strict measures at its bases.

"We still have to go in and out. We still have a job to do," he said. "There's still conflict going on. So our peacekeepers are still going out and trying to help sort that out.

"But inside our bases, social distancing, washing hands everywhere you go, [and] restricted numbers of people coming onto the base."

None of the nation's hospitals are set up to deal with a virus of COVID-19's magnitude, Shearer explained.

"Our best defence is prevention, frankly."