Covid-19 and Ugandans’ death wish

Covid-19 and Ugandans’ death wish

Death has a way of focusing us on survival. We make the necessary sacrifices. We take precautions. We promise to change our behaviours. We set partisan and other differences aside. It is a life and death fight. So, we attack the new enemy together.


That was the case in Uganda. A very long time ago. So long ago that the memory of the threat is fading. March 2020 to be exact. 


That is when the Ugandan president and his ministers of health grabbed the bull by the horns. They set out to steer the country through a dark and muddy swamp of a coming pandemic for which the country was terribly ill-prepared. 


Like a guerrilla leader with 27 guns and a handful of brave soldiers, the president launched a resistance war against the new coronavirus, a ruthless enemy that was felling thousands in the rich countries. 


There were a few hiccups, including a messy attempt at quarantining arriving passengers at Entebbe. The usual parasites cropped up, including the insatiably corrupt lot and the incurably  greedy parliamentarians. 


The former saw Covid-19 as a welcome ally in their criminal accumulation of wealth. The MPs cynically declared themselves essential members of the anti-Covid-19 forces and awarded themselves bundles of cash. A shutdown of the urban areas, albeit necessary, was declared without adequate preparations.  Museveni saw an opportunity to campaign and buy voters’ support with Covid-19 relief supplies. 


Notwithstanding these and other shortcomings, Uganda quickly became an example of an African country that was confronting the threat with reassuring resoluteness and focus. The citizens would be safe from the killer agent. 


Sitting here in North America, but keeping a close eye on Uganda, I saw enormous contrast between the war strategies of President Yoweri Museveni and Donald Trump of the USA. 


The Ugandan ruler, visibly scared by the threat, listened to the experts and provided impressive leadership. The American ruler, utterly lost in his fantasy world, listened to himself and to fellow conspiracy theorists and dragged his country towards chaos. I confess a little swagger as I shared with colleagues at work that Uganda was one of the countries where science and common sense were prevailing. 


The initial success led some to accuse the  government of overreacting.  The citizens became understandably restless. What with the threat of hunger and the challenges of accessing healthcare! 


To ensure compliance with the lockdown, the Ugandan president ordered military-style patrols of the urban areas, with orders to shoot curfew violators and severe disciplining of other naughtiness.  The effect of the measures was to keep the cases in Uganda relatively low. 


However, the lockdown was taking its toll on a society that had always lived hand-to-mouth, with very little private or national reserves to sustain them for more than a few weeks. Some of the armed guards took advantages of their power and killed citizens, to save lives.


Plus, old habits die hard. Like drug addicts, it was hard for citizens, especially urban dwellers, to abstain from their love affair with constant socialising, including weddings and funerals, and the indispensable drinking joints. Some religious leaders expressed worry about the spiritual health of their congregations whom the lockdown was depriving of Sunday worship in their churches. 


So, the pressure to ease and lift the lockdown was intense. The president listened and began to reverse the lockdown, with strict conditions that citizens had to adhere to, for their own safety. With evidence that protective face masks were effective in reducing the spread of the virus, the president ordered that everyone must wear one whenever outside their homes. The government would provide masks to all citizens. 


The universal masks program got bogged down in an inefficient and corrupt world, run by opportunists to whom the coronavirus was yet another chance to steal money and to enhance their political support among the citizens. The fight was in ruins. Yet the virus was just settling in. Now it seems to be gaining momentum. 


Five months after the war began, Uganda appears to be in retreat while the enemy gears up for a potentially deadly assault. The increasing number of newly detected cases, which are almost certainly a fraction of all cases in the land, and a rising death toll, may be partly due to carelessness. 


Meanwhile, the focus is on partisan politics. Millions of dollars are already purchasing votes, not the medical equipment and the human resources that may soon be needed to handle the potential escalation of a non-partisan enemy - Covid-19. 


Politicians are holding rallies. The ones who belong to the ruling NRM are not harassed by the police. If they tempt fate, so what? Physical distancing must not ruin the political hopes of the people’s representatives. 


Friends have sent me photos and videos of people in different towns, all telling a story of a lax attitude towards hand washing, physical distancing and wearing of face masks. A friend in Kampala told me that she found it rude not to hug friends and relatives. People are literally playing Russian Roulette with a virus that is unforgiving once it gains a foothold in a community. 


Of course, Ugandans are not alone in this disregard or misuse of masks and physical distancing. I see numerous people doing the same right here in Toronto. However, my focus is on Uganda because it is one of the countries that cannot afford to have an overload of patients. 


From what I see and hear, masks in Uganda have become a tool for political campaigns. Their partisan colours seem to matter more than their proper use in the fight against Covid-19. Images show people wearing loose or poorly fitting masks. Some cover just the mouth. Many people wear them like necklaces or bow ties. Others keep touching the front of the mask, probably because of discomfort, which increases the risk of contamination.  


Some people take them off to give public speeches, a counterintuitive measure given the increased number of respiratory droplets during speech, singing and laughter. Frankly, my reaction whenever I see people pretending to wear masks is to ask: “why bother?” 


I have seen images and heard stories that have left me between tears and laughter. Many people keep the masks in their pockets or bags, for quick retrieval the moment they see police officers. One man kept his mask in his pocket because he did not want it to get spoiled. 


We recall that Jane Ruth Aceng herself, the minister of health who had become the face of the fight against the virus, went on a political campaign in Lira, where she quickly removed her face mask, ignored physical distancing and marched with a crowd. 


So, it is not the much maligned abanyakyaaro (rural villagers) alone who do these things. The entire social spectrum is united in a death-wish. 





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