Joseph Kizza, Kampala
When Uganda’s government extended an initial 14-day nationwide lockdown by three weeks – until May 5 – to curb the spread of the coronavirus, some people were dismayed by the news after enduring a fortnight of unusual restricted existence.
But for others, like Denis Ayebazibwe who lives in the capital Kampala, President Yoweri Museveni’s announcement of the extension was “a good move”.
The 22-year-old runs a small groceries shop with a friend in the densely populated neighbourhood of Zana, about seven kilometres out of the city centre. Their small business is feeling the stress of the lockdown – but not as bad as is the case elsewhere.
“Our only challenge is transport. We have to walk to and from the nearby market – a total distance of four kilometres – every week to buy the groceries to stock our shop. It is very exhausting,” says Ayebazibwe, whose calm demeanor and bashfulness compliments the rosary around his neck.
Nonetheless, he maintains it is necessary that Uganda remains under lockdown.
As of Monday, the coronavirus-positive cases in the east African nation stood at 79, with 47 of these already discharged from hospital after recovering. No coronavirus-related death has been registered in the country of 41 million people.
Inevitably, the lockdown has inspired behavioral changes in many Ugandan homes. On top of having to stay indoors for the mandatory dusk-to-dawn curfew, locals are keener than ever before on regular handwashing, one of the key practices recommended globally to keep the novel coronavirus at bay.
And at Ayebazibwe’s home, it is no different.
“Nowadays, if someone returns home, the first thing they have to do is wash their hands with soap and water. It is a new normal for us. Everyone in my family understands all too well that if we let our guard down, we could all potentially get infected,” he says.
The youthful food seller dropped out of school after his O-Level, but his steely determination to become a wholesale shop owner before he turns 30 is telling of a character of a young man laden with ambition. To realize his dream, Ayebazibwe, the eldest of three children in his family, is saving every penny possible from the returns of his shop.
The shop is also packed with a stockpile of sacks of charcoal for sale, which is the most common source of fuel in his community.
Good enough, the lockdown has not disrupted the flow of customers to their packed shop. “People buy stuff like tomatoes, carrots, eggplants and onions as frequently as they did before the lockdown,” he says.
But while business is fairly good, Ayebazibwe’s social life has taken a hit.
In the age of social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic, he misses hanging out with his friends, who have been boxed into confinement in a locked down Uganda. “I only chat with them on Facebook and WhatsApp. We all can’t wait for the lockdown to be lifted so we can get back to meeting physically,” he says.
While the government allows essential services, including food sale, health service provision and banks, to continue operating during the lockdown, most businesses remain closed and if the situation does not return to normal soon, many Ugandans face a bleak future.
For Makerere University student Brian Opio consequences of the coronavirus lockdown are dire.
“We are running out of food at home as well as other basics. You cannot turn to anyone for help because you know everyone is going through a rough time. It is a very difficult period.”
His father, who owns a hardware shop in Gulu town in northern Uganda, had to close the business after the government ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses as one of the lockdown measures.
He recently told his son, a second-year student of Business Administration, that he will likely have to take a dead year at the university due to lack of money for tuition. Opio was horrified by that news, but he totally understood.
“My father is seated at home – doing nothing. He has been depending on the hardware shop to support the whole family and to keep us in school,” says Opio.
From the look of things a further extension of the lockdown seems ever more likely. For the last one week, all the COVID-19 positive cases have been truck drivers from neighbouring Tanzania and Kenya, tested at the border points.
There has been mounting pressure from sections of the public for the government to either shut the borders or not allow truck drivers through until their results are known after being tested.
President Yoweri Museveni, who has previously likened the fight against the coronavirus to the bush war that brought him into power more than three decades ago, told the nation in his latest address that cargo transporters would be allowed to carry on with their respective journeys after being tested at the border. If found to be positive for coronavirus, a driver would be tracked down and hospitalized for treatment.
Last weekend, Dr. Diana Atwine, the permanent secretary of Uganda’s health ministry, was hosted on a local radio talk show and admitted that porous borders are posing a huge threat to the COVID-19 control and prevention.
She, however, underlined that Uganda’s borders should remain open to keep business moving, but that managing truck drivers coming in must be handled more efficiently.
“We still have protocols that bind us as the East African Community. We need to put in place processes that minimize infection. This is a mutual obligation, it is prudent that trade continues. What matters is the processes we put at borders to minimize infection,” Dr. Atwine was quoted as saying.
With no community cases reported in the last seven days, Uganda’s chances of fighting coronavirus seem to be on the bright side – if only they can prevent long-distance truck drivers from carrying the virus into the country.
One person who is confident that the war will be won sooner than later is Oliver Nanyombi, a laboratory technician at Family Health Centre in Kampala.
“I think we are doing a very good job – we have quarantined people. In no time, we shall be free of the virus,” she says, the confidence in her tone evident. “Since we have previously managed Ebola outbreaks, we shall also successfully deal with the coronavirus.”
At the entrance of the facility where Nanyombi works – from 8am until 6pm six days in a week – stands a portable water canister and antiseptic soap for visitors to clean their hands before walking in. Inside, a hand sanitizer is one of the features on the nurse’s desk, which acts as the reception point for patients and clients. The rooms are airy.
“We frequently clean all surfaces,” weighs in Enock Ndebesa, a male nurse at the health facility, which is tucked away in a quiet residential neighbourhood. Here, antenatal, general medicine and minor surgery services are provided. With current restrictions on movement though, the clinic is not as busy as on ordinary days.
But even with less activity at the health facility, hygiene cannot be compromised. The constant presence of a janitor on duty is reassurance that staff here are abiding by the standard operating procedures to keep coronavirus at bay.
While experts do not think it to be the main way the virus spreads, they still believe that a person can get coronavirus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes.
This ubiquitous coronavirus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.
In fact, Nanyombi insists that surgical gloves should be a preserve for medical professionals. “At the beginning of the pandemic, some people wore gloves thinking they would not get infected. That was wrong. Gloves are deceptive. People should instead stick to washing their hands with soap and water.”
And if this basic habit sticks, Uganda will be a much healthier nation, adds the lab technician.
“After coronavirus, hopefully, people will maintain proper hygiene habits, which will help prevent community-acquired diseases. Cases of such diseases as typhoid will reduce,” she predicts.
For now, just like many other countries, Uganda is trying to put up a force of resilience against a virus that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people across the planet.
Fighting off this deadly virus requires global solidarity, but recent developments have proved to be a thorn in the side of this strategy. The World Health Organisation is at the heart of the global fight against the pandemic, but recently, the US announced it would stop funding the UN’s specialized health agency as it reviews its handling of the pandemic.
UN secretary general António Guterres responded by saying that this is not the time to cut funds to the WHO.
“The international community [should] work together in solidarity to stop this virus,” he said. “It is my belief that the World Health Organization must be supported, as it is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19.”
The UN chief is right. Uganda is one of the beneficiaries of support from the WHO, which plays a vital role in bolstering health systems in the country and far beyond. President Donald Trump’s cutting off of key funds to the organization means the effects will trickle down to Uganda.
Last week, the UN agencies in Uganda issued a $316.4m emergency appeal to respond to COVID-19 and its impact on the east African country. As the country continues to run around the clock to stave off the virus, its citizens eager to return to normal life.