Experts differ on handling rising COVID-19 cases
| MUBATSI ASINJA HABATI | Recent increases in coronavirus disease COVID-19 cases are causing anxiety among Ugandans. Many fear the government will impose another lockdown.
By June 11 total confirmed cases were 679. That is a jump of 172 cases or 34% from a week before. As the confirmed infections curve is climbing sharply, there is fear that cumulative COVID-19 infections could fly past the 1000 before end of the month.
The spike in numbers comes at a time when the government is implementing an easing of the lockdown imposed in March when the first COVID-19 cases were detected. Indications are that instead of continuing with the easing the lockdown, the government might tighten it again.
In the fight against COVID-19, President Yoweri Museveni, the Ministry of health, and the National COVID-19 Taskforce have shown themselves to be cautious pessimists; always working for the best possible outcomes by anticipating and planning for the worst case scenario.
The result has been a government bureaucracy paralysed by fear of COVID-19. The Ugandan COVID-19 experts have been quick to impose harsh lockdowns and slow to devise innovative policy interventions.
Where most experts predict that COVID-19 will not go away but become endemic, Ugandan health official appear to imagine a country with Zero cases.
The Minister of Health, Dr. Ruth Aceng, while commissioning the distribution of government’s first batch of free masks to border districts on June 09, said if there are mass infections and deaths resulting from COVID-19, the country will be forced in another lockdown. The goal is to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed.
The minister’s view is shared by Dr. Diana Atwine, the Health Ministry Permanent Secretary, who told The Independent that if the number of infections increases exponentially the ministry will tell President Museveni to reinstitute a lockdown.
“We are trying all we can to see that the number of COVID-19 infections don’t exponentially increase especially within the community,” Dr. Atwine said, “but if the community infections do increase then we will go to our authority and present the problem and then it will be upon him to decide; we cannot decide alone as the ministry, we can’t predetermine that. It is all about discussing and weighing the options that are available.”
Dr. Monica Musenero, an epidemiologist and senior presidential advisor on epidemics, also says if people keep on ignoring social distancing and stop wearing masks, another lockdown might be the solution to slow spread of the disease.
But Dr. Anthony Ekwaru Obuku, former president Uganda Medical Association, says with or without a lockdown coronavirus infections are going to increase.
“The lockdown slows the increase of infections. (But)The critical question should be so what after the lockdown?
“The lockdown should not be reinstituted rather we should use the information we got from the lockdown to strengthen our health sector because COVID-19 has exposed cracks in the health system. Let’s use this opportunity for resource mobilisation and mobilise the communities to get ready to deal with this pandemic.”
Obuku says every policy intervention creates new policy problems, the biggest being negatively affecting other existing services.
“Already some agencies like the World Bank say millions of children will miss immunisation due the lockdown,” he says, “even utilisation of public services has gone down. Actually some private health facilities had to reduce on their operations and in worse scenarios had to close.”
The uncontrollable fear of COVID-19 among health planners is usually blamed on lack of resources to handle huge numbers of infections should they arise. But the bigger contributor could be the lack of data and knowledge of how big or small the threat is.
On June 01 President Museveni made this point when he announced another postponement of re-opening of schools. He cited scientists who advised that “no proper risk assessment had been done” on the area.
“I had talked about opening schools after June 4, but we have further studied this with the scientists and the eventual decision was to delay. We have 1.4 million children in these candidate classes and finalists. We don’t have enough testing kits for testing those numbers every two weeks,” Museveni said.
Earlier, on May 18 President Museveni had announced gradual re-opening of public taxi transport and more shopping areas. He also announced reopening of schools on June 04 for P7, S.4, S.6 and final year students at universities and tertiary institutions.
Based on this, many schools and universities have issued reopening programs. Most indicated mid-to-late June as opening dates. Now everything is uncertain. The instinct now appears re-imposition of the blanket lockdown. There is even talk of a dead year 2020 for all learners.