Uganda is not an island on mars. We have immediate neighbours whose actions we have little or no control over. Besides our neighbors like South Sudan and DRC have weak and absentee states that cannot ensure effective control of the spread of the virus.
Our other neighbours like Tanzania and to an extent Kenya have been lax in their enforcement of measures that limit the spread of the virus. And once we open the borders and airport to passengers, it will become increasingly difficult to stop the entry of the virus into our country. Therefore, a prudent policy on the lockdown was not to see the lockdown as a solution but as a stopgap measure to build state capacity to control the spread of the virus, knowing that we cannot completely eliminate it from our midst. Hence the objective should be how to live with it while limiting its ability to spread rapidly and widely across the country, and how to ensure treatment for those who contract the disease.
I had always thought that this was the vision of the government of Uganda. I thought they would use lockdown to build the state capacity for monitoring, testing and contact tracing of people who test positive. This would give them capacity to isolate the infected and quarantine them. The second aim would have been to build a highly robust administrative machine to ensure enforcement of standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the management of public transport, public buildings, shopping malls and arcades, markets, concerts, churches etc. Finally I had thought that government would use the lockdown to build the capacity of public medical facilities to handle COVID patients in both mild and critical conditions.
The President ordered the lockdown on March 30; that is over three months ago, almost 100 days end of this week. Yet, we hear that it is now that government is trying to put in place SOPs for the management these public facilities. In fact government has no plan yet on how to open boda bodas for business, yet this is a sector that employs over one million Ugandans who live hand to mouth. Given that an average household in Uganda has five persons, it means the livelihoods of more than five million people are at stake, without any income, if boda bodas are not opened for passenger business.
Finally to build a capacity of 1,200 intensive care unit beds in Uganda required less than $10m (Shs 37 billion) for ventilators, $5m (Shs 18.5 billion) for monitors, and a little over one million dollars for oxygen plants. If one adds about $3m (Shs 10 billion) for protective medical equipment for our health professionals, it is clear that a lot would have been achieved. Instead huge resources have been poured into the wrong places in pursuit of unachievable aims and goals. Vital time has been lost in this utopian dream of a COVID-free Uganda. Why have we failed to think? Or have we?
It is very possible there is a lot of incompetence and poor internal coordination of things inside government. This creates a toxic combination that explains some of the failures we see. But it is also possible that some people may be turning this into an opportunity to make money, the larger the scare the larger would be their budgets and roles. If this profiteering is done by powerful forces inside the state, then we can be sure that COVID will not be defeated. Instead COVID may have become a continuous springboard for private profiteering.