President Yoweri Museveni has over the last three months led the ‘war’ against the COVID-19 pandemic in Uganda. In the 15 television addresses he has given since March 18, he has appeared relaxed and in-charge of the situation.
But on Uganda’s Heroes Day celebrated on June 09, there was something uncharacteristic about Museveni’s demeanor. He was visibly angry and sounded frustrated with Ugandans. Museveni said he is disturbed by images of people’s disregard for the measures his government has been issuing since March 21 when Uganda registered its first COVID-19 case.
Museveni partially opened the economy on June 04, after nearly 70 days of quarantining Ugandans, allowing public transport, markets, shopping malls, hotels and restaurants to resume operations. Life has almost returned to normal with the usual hustle and bustle in downtown Kampala and other towns. But the easing of the lockdown has come with an uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases causing anxiety among technocrats at the Ministry of Health.
Police and the military have been seen in downtown Kampala confronting people to respect the social distance protocols. In other instances, police personnel have been forcing people to buy and wear face masks on the spot.
Museveni said Uganda has so far been spared deaths from COVID-19 because (initially) people followed his directives which led to few people being hospitalized. But given the laxity with which people are now taking the pandemic, he said it might be very hard to stop the deaths.
“Some Ugandans say after all nobody has died, so they are not bothered,” Museveni said two days later while delivering his national budget speech at State House, Entebbe.
“If you are looking for somebody to die, you will get him. And when you start dying, don’t say Museveni did not tell us. We won’t keep begging you not to die. We have told you exactly what science says about this virus,” Museveni said.
“On Heroes Day, I told you what I thought—that if you are disappointed that we don’t have dead bodies like other countries, you will see them if you don’t listen. You will find that we have teams of people putting on white, burying people like you have seen in other countries,” he said.
“We cannot go on begging people to live; that we call police to enforce COVID-19 preventive measures. All of us should enforce this on ourselves without having to bother the police,” he said.
Museveni is right to be worried. COVID-19 continues to spread across Africa. Since the virus was first detected on the continent in mid-February, more than 200,000 cases have been confirmed, with more than 5600 deaths according to data released by the World Health Organization on June 11. The UN agency in charge of global health said that whereas it took 98 days for Africa to register 100,000 cases, this time it has taken just 18 days to hit the 200,000 mark.
“For now Africa still only accounts for a small fraction of cases worldwide,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa, “But the pace of the spread is quickening. Swift and early action by African countries has helped to keep numbers low but constant vigilance is needed to stop COVID-19 from overwhelming health facilities.”
In Uganda, the pandemic is said to be putting the country’s health system on the test. Some regional referral hospitals are, for instance, admitting more than the required number of patients while frontline health workers have started getting infected with the Coronavirus. Seventeen (17) health workers have so far been reported positive.
Dr. Atwine, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health recently told local broadcaster, NTV that the ministry technocrats are worried about the health workers getting infected.
In recent weeks, several African countries have relaxed lockdowns and allowed some economic and social activities to resume. These shutdowns, Dr. Moeti said, have come at considerable socioeconomic cost.
“Stay-at-home orders and closing of markets and businesses have taken a heavy toll, particularly on the most vulnerable and marginalized communities,” said Dr Moeti. “So, the need to balance between saving lives and protecting livelihoods is a key consideration in this response, particularly in Africa.
Dr. Moeti said easing restrictions should be a controlled process and needs to be coupled with ensuring that widespread testing capacities and mechanisms are in place.
“These steps need to be constantly adapted according to the trends in the data and maintained until the pandemic is contained or there is a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 which is accessible to everyone.”
Going forward, President Museveni says he is now preparing for the worst and he has asked the Health Ministry to dedicate up to 2000 beds around the country to treat COVID-19 more patients and if necessary the government is also prepared to convert the biggest stadium in the country—the Nelson Mandela National Stadium— into a 40,000-bed hospital.
But Dr. Olive Kobusingye, a researcher at Makerere University’s College of Health Sciences recently told local broadcaster, NTV, that the government spent the entire lockdown trying hard to prevent infections coming into the country instead of preparing the country’s health care system to cope with infections.
“We have squandered the opportunity that we had,” she said.