By Stephen Kafeero
The new Minister of Health, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda spoke to The Independent’s Stephen Kafeero about his plans for the sector and what motivates him.
You have served in different positions in cabinet. How do you manage these transitions easily?
The principle point is service to the people of Uganda and it has been my pleasure to serve them in different portfolios and ministries. It is a commitment to the people, a commitment to the country to improve the quality of life of the people of Uganda and for that matter the people of Africa. So we are making a contribution whether we are in health or a different portfolio.
At the ministry of health, what are some of the things that you intend to focus on?
We want to go back to the basic principles of prevention of disease and promotion of health, to ensure that children are immunized so that they don’t die of measles, polio, whooping cough, tetanus and other diseases.
We want people to have information and education so that they take charge of their own health issues. For example good nourishment means growth; a healthy person is able to resist disease just by nutrition.
Going for prenatal or antenatal care for women before one is pregnant, checking with the doctor to see whether it is the right age or the right time to be pregnant, checking with the doctor to ensure that one is properly nourished during pregnancy in order to avoid complications during birth, ensuring that you are protected from malaria so that you are safe as a person and the baby that you are carrying. You can do a lot by just taking correct preventive measures.
The problem that the country and the continent are going to face is the issue of non-communicable diseases or diseases of lifestyle. Diseases of the heart due to obesity or overworking the heart, and diabetes can be prevented or controlled by simple things.
By focusing on tools that are well known where you invest little but get a lot and save time in hospitals, money required for hospitalisations, and loss of income because of not working. We can lead better lives.
Let’s take malaria which is one of the biggest health threats in Uganda. What do you intend to do about it?
Government is already launching a big campaign of using bed nets, early treatment and early detection, and good environmental sanitation so that the habitat of the mosquitoes is destroyed or removed, and through Indoor Residual Spraying. The critical part is use of a combination.
What about HIV/AIDS?
Uganda has done well because it has brought down prevalence from the high it used to be at over 20% to a range of 6%. There has been some stagnation and even modest increase in prevalence but we are collectively working on the problem. There has been some relaxation especially with drugs and condoms availability and several issues have led to complacency.
The government is strongly reminding the population that abstinence is the best form of protection. However if you can’t abstain then use a condom. The issue of circumcision has also come up and research has shown that it reduces the chance of getting HIV/AIDS, however even when we encourage it, if you are going for sex use a condom.
What is the difference between then when we made progress and now?
At that time, that is mid-late 80’s and early 90’s the message was HIV/AIDS is finishing off the country, the continent and humanity and every effort was made to defeat it on that basis.
At that time there was no drug or any other meaningful intervention except to abstain. So today the situation is different, we have had some drugs which do not cure but prolong life, they contain the problem and have been useful and this may have contributed to some kind of relaxation and cooling down the momentum but we must revive it.
Many analysts have described our health sector as ‘sick.’ As someone who has worked from other areas. What can be done to revamp it?
The health system in Uganda has met many challenges and in my view it has responded quite effectively. We need to increase the capacity of our people in terms of training and in numbers.
There is more need of bringing on board man power at all levels, improving working conditions of the health personnel; I mean salaries but also being able to ensure that hospitals have facilities, the labs and equipment are working, and drugs are available.
We need to make sure those facilities are available not only at Mulago but also at mid referral hospitals,district hospitals and health centers and other health units.
The other element is to recognize that there are many players in the health sector and we welcome the private sector both those who are not making profits like religious based health institutions and also those that make profits.
They are collectively making a contribution to what government is doing and the totality of all, in my view is helping the country to meet health challenges. We all need to do more.
The Ministry of finance claims to send money for health workers yet some complain of not getting their salaries. What is the problem?
That subject matter has come up a number of times; we recently recruited 7,211 in the last financial year. Some of them are not on the payroll but government through the ministries of finance, public service, local government and ourselves are doing all we can to see to it that the problem is quickly solved.
What were your achievements at the UN?
It was Uganda at the United Nations; it was Africa because there were three Africans in the Security Council out of the 15 members. I’m happy that Uganda championed the case for Africa being more and more relevant in resolving regional problems in Africa and we championed this cause and the Security Council more or less came to support the position that Africa has indeed matured and can handle its problems.
Uganda under AMISOM spearheaded the forces in Somalia supported by the United Nations. It played an important role to see peaceful elections and independence of South Sudan, and in sorting out the situation in Congo. It has not settled completely but Uganda played an important role through AU and United Nations.Perhaps another critical point is cooperation between the UN and AU is now stronger than before.
On Facebook there is a page known as ‘Dr Ambassador RuhakanaRugunda, My next President of Republic of Uganda’. Is this your page?
No, it is not my page but I have seen it.
Do you harbor the ambitions to take on the seat after President Museveni?
I harbor great ambitions for serving the people of Uganda and am extremely happy that I have fulfilled my ambitions for serving them. In the National Resistance Movement we have our leader YoweriMuseveni who is chairman of the party and president of Uganda. He has a mandate of the party and that of the country and he has performed well as leader of the party and that of the country and he enjoys my support.
In a government dubbed corrupt, you have rarely been named in any corruption scandals and controversies. How do you manage to pull this off?
I just focus on my work, focus on my country and that is my main preoccupation and concentration. However, do not assume that all the scandals that you have read are necessarily properly investigated or they have actually taken place.
You need more inquiry, more investigations before throwing some body’s name in the dustbin just because he has been mentioned. It could be that he may have been mentioned wrongly.
In your career, what mistake taught you the most?
I would say my education has benefitted from many experiences both positive and negative and learning is a continuous process, so I continue to learn. Even from a discussion of this nature, I may pick up a point or two from you.
So, what’s the most important skill for a leader to have?
I wouldnot want to arrogate myself to a level of prescriptions for what a leader should be or should have because the way one reacts depends on the situation as it is on the ground.
It is only fair and right that leaders should be principled, truthful and trusted. Leaders should be committed to their cause, their country, their people, to the continent and humanity.
If that commitment is serious and genuine, it will provide a lot of guidance to the leadership.They should be transparent and should have ideological clarity and commitment so that they know the basis of their service and their contribution to society.
What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
Well I do not go into those comparisons, I have done things that may be considered brave and others that may be considered differently but I normally do not have a meter on the basis of which I carry out these measurements.
And what’s your alternative career fantasy?
I don’t have any career fantasies, am happy that am a medical doctor and a political activist and the two complement each other very well.
What is that one thing that young people can learn from you?
I encourage young people to be broad, to look at themselves, and see what contribution they will make to their country, to their society, to the continent and to humanity.
We are here for a short time as individuals, let’s use it well and make a contribution to make society better than we found it. This applies to society at all levels; it may be within your district, your village, in your country and it maybe in East Africa and beyond.
What are you obsessed with at the moment?
I have a number of things I consider significant and that I work for. I want to see Uganda better, I want to see better quality of life for Ugandans, better health, incomes , better and longer life expectancy, better health indices so that we no longer lose children in such numbers, we no longer lose women because of preventable maternal deaths and that we are not losing people at such a tender age.
Let’s improve our life expectancy, let’s push it to 70 and even 80. We can do this if we are focused, if we add value and if we are committed to building a better society.
What book(s) have you read and wish you had written?
I have read books and found them quite interesting and useful but have not had a wish to have written them. I recommend wide reading and in the process of wide reading you are able to pick out books that you find particularly useful and helpful in your career, in your work so wide reading is my recommendation.