Why the utopian dream of a COVID-free Uganda may have become a springboard for private profiteering
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | On June 24 morning I walked into Kikuubo, the epicenter of Uganda’s trade, in Kampala city. I found tens of thousands of people congested on the streets selling merchandise. While Kikuubo is always crowded, this time it was overcrowded; with the street teaming with chaos of traders selling from the street and from their cars, plus hawkers and vendors.
Our government has told us that they are keeping shopping arcades closed in order to avoid congestion. However, three months into the lockdown, during which most traders have not been earning anything to survive, government seems unaware that people are getting desperate. Traders have moved their wares from their shops inside arcades and are now selling from the streets, hence leading to overcrowding.
It was clear to me that government actions are now beginning to produce unintended consequences. As the Kikuubo experience demonstrates, the solution is now worse than the problem.
For instance, whatever the risks are associated with shopping arcades, they are controllable. Government can put in place regulations, as they have done with shopping malls, to ensure that people entering shopping arcades are first sanitised and also temperature tested. This cost would go to the arcade owner and police and Ministry of Health officials can inspect these shopping arcades regularly to ensure compliance.
Secondly, and again as government has done with shopping malls, it can require that every shop in the arcade have a sanitiser and a temperature tester. Again police and Ministry of Health officials can regularly conduct impromptu checks to ensure compliance. What is shocking is that government had not earlier thought of this. The first time the ministers of Trade and KCCA officials went to inspect arcades with a view to do exactly this was Friday June 26.
In the meantime, the desperation of traders has led to a disaster. First, traders are selling their wares on the streets where the government has zero capacity to enforce the Standard Operating Procedures (compliance measures) that it can impose on arcade owners and tenants. Second, the shift to the streets denies government access to revenues since traders must not be paying rent for shops they are not using. So the incomes of arcade owners have been harmed alongside government revenues from rental income.
But the worse risk is of people congesting the streets without facemasks and other controls, which, ironically has increased the risk of contagion, the very risk government is seeking to mitigate. Secondly in keeping arcades locked, government has lost an opportunity to regulate behavior and conduct on the streets. What explains this?
It seems to me that when government ordered the lockdown, its objective was misguided i.e. it sought to control the existence of the virus to zero as a condition for opening up. This was a utopian vision, which even a primary school teacher would have seen as impossible.