How Uganda lost the Covid-19 battle

Mamos Media

Traders conduct business in downtown Kampala before the Covid-19 lockdown last year. PHOTO/ALEX ESAGALA

By Franklin Draku

President Museveni last Friday imposed a fresh lockdown, the second in 16 months, following dramatic surge in Covid-19 deaths and infections across the country.

Tests done on June 17, 2021 confirmed 1,397 new cases – the highest on record since the pandemic outbreak in Uganda in March 2020 – taking the cumulative cases to 70,176. The deaths have nearly doubled to 625 from the first wave.
Uganda registered the first case of Covid-19 on March 21, 2020, shortly after the country’s borders were shut and everyone locked at home.

That early lockdown has been praised by, among others, the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a game-changer in the considerably low deaths and transmission during the first wave of the pandemic.

In March 2020, Covid-19 was a few months old, little was known about it and the fear of the unknown caused panic and simultaneously compliance by citizens.

The mass coronavirus deaths in developed nations such as Italy, the United States, the United Kingdom and Spain, with modern healthcare and insurance system, spelled danger – fanned in part by Melinda Gates’ comment that dead bodies would litter streets in Africa – for Uganda with a broken healthcare system.  

Through regular televised addresses, President Museveni showed strong leadership on managing the pandemic that he proclaimed as a war and invoked his bush-time guerrilla tricks to galvanise citizens and insert the military at the centre of the response. Advertisement

The prescribed medicine combined a retreat – euphemism for the populations to stay home – and listen, which involved monitoring the progression of the pandemic as core to self-preservation.  

The clarion call, which Ugandans obliged to, was to make sacrifices and survive to enjoy a future without pandemic threat. In theory, it sounded civil and realistic before a problematic implementation began to erode public trust and confidence in government.

By the end of June 2020, three months after the index Covid-19 case, Uganda had recorded only 870 cases with no deaths reported. It was not until after the fourth month, on July 22, 2020, that the first Ugandan succumbed to the disease.

Even when the damage was not severe, some missteps manifested.  Foreign truck drivers were tested at the border, but allowed inland before results, leading to some of the Covid-positive to mix with and infect Ugandans.

The contacts, a reference to a person known to have orbited around an infected individual, began to peak along the highways plied by the long haulage trucks.   

Then followed money troubles, with technocrats fixing their hands in the cookie jar as subsequent Auditor General’s report showed.

First, Parliament approved huge sums of money in quick succession, in one case exceeding Health ministry budget, for which they slashed Shs10b and divided among themselves ostensibly to sensitise the voters who were locked at home.  

President Museveni chided the lawmakers for their greed and the legislators responded with a vote of no confidence in the President’s rebuke before making a U-turn shortly afterwards to pass another resolution exalting him for superintending a stellar Covid-19 response.  

Besides political fights and pecuniary pursuits, brutalisations of citizens by happy Local Defence Unit personnel – who the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported had killed about a dozen people in Uganda before Covid claimed the first – caused a revulsion among the population.

Thus, many Ugandans began looking at Covid-19 in two ways: risk to human security due to militarised response and cash cow for those close to power or politically connected.

The lack of proper accountability for public donations created suspicion that some in government positioned to profiteer from a tragedy.

Nothing is being said of the dozens of double-cabin pick-up trucks that the President solicited for Covid response in areas of rough terrain, the pledged radios later upgraded to communal television screening for virtual learning remain in words while eggs and milk contributed for frontline health workers ended on the dining table of individuals unconnected to the pandemic battle.

Loans
Mistrust grew by leaps and bounds as government ramped up borrowing internally and from international lenders, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) besides millions of dollars donated by the United States and other western governments.

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A deserted street in downtown Kampala after President Museveni announced the new lockdown on Friday. The government blames operators here for violating the standard operating procedures put in place to stop the spread of Covid, with many shoppers not social distancing or wearing masks. PHOTO/ABUBAKER LUBOWA

For example, Uganda received Shs1.9 trillion from the IMF in budget support and loans channelled through Bank of Uganda, the Finance ministry and Uganda Development Bank. The country also received Shs1.2 trillion as budget support from the World Bank, Shs17.2 billion from European Union grant as budget support, Shs1.3 trillion each from Stanbic Bank, pushing total money picked in the name of Covid to Shs5.8 trillion.

The thematic audit report on Covid-19 pandemic government interventions released in February, this year, indicated a number of anomalies in the government response to the pandemic.

It notes that a total of Shs143.9 billion was irregularly spent without complying with procurement regulations. Out of this, the Ministry of Health was the biggest culprit with more than Shs100 billion spent irregularly, followed by Uganda Police Force at Shs21.3 billion while Defence and Uganda Prisons Services respectively used Shs16 billion and Shs3.5 billion irregularly.

A number of other ministries, departments and agencies, including district were also faulted for irregular procurements.
While this newspaper only picked the issue of irregular procurement to highlight the crisis, the report also pointed out a number of other anomalies in Covid-19 response amounting to billions of shillings lost.

It also emerged that government had also given out money to Silverbacks Pharmacy Ltd owned by Charlotte Kainerugaba and Ishta Asiimwe K. Muganga, both daughters of Sam Kutesa to provide oxygen plant to national and regional referral hospitals across the country. However, by the time of audit, the facilities were not installed, leading to still subsisting oxygen crisis and preventable deaths of Covid patients in the country.

Politics
During the lockdown, worship places were locked down for prayers, but politicians subscribing to ruling NRM party turned them for political campaigns.

Then a video surfaced of the Health Minister, Dr Ruth Aceng, the posterchild of the coronavirus battle, who had thrown her hat in the political ring to successful run as Woman MP, showing her in a procession of supporters in Lira.

The clip, which spread widely on social media, drew public ire with a condemnation of the minister for violating her own rule that has consigned millions home for months.

Once campaigns turned full-throttle, Covid-19 rules were largely ignored and invoked only against Opposition candidates while crowd-pulling musicians headlined processions preceding arrival of ruling party flag bearer and incumbent President Yoweri Tibuhaburwa Museveni, who distinctly complied with the rules by addressing smaller meetings.

Divisive poll
Uganda emerged from the elections polarised with one side believing that Covid-19 did not exists and was being contrived to repress while another section accepted the pandemic, but cared less because the variant as less virulent.

Thus, many people dropped the guard following the phased reopening of the country and predictions by scientists that Covid-19 would worsen during or shortly after polls never happened, with the disease exploding months after the 42-day maximum incubation of the virus.

Thus, the question that arises is: with no campaigns, no protests or huge crowd-pulling events such as concerts, why is there a dramatic upsurge in Covid deaths and infections.

To Dr Aceng, reappointed Health minister, the root cause is a new variant and laissez-faire attitude of the population.

“Unfortunately, after the elections, people forgot that there was Covid in Uganda [and SOPs became a thing] of the past. Second, the new variants. We have five variants in the country and these variants are highly transmissible, very aggressive and cause high mortality,” she said while appearing on NTV-Uganda’s On-the-Spot talk show last Thursday.

She added: “There is a (video) clip of His Excellency the President in [which he tells] people that ‘we have told you all that we have to tell you, we have educated you on how to protect yourselves and you still refuse to listen, you are going to see deaths rising here and when you see deaths, don’t say we didn’t tell you’.”

Put another way, the minister meant Ugandans refused to heed to a government warning and should blame themselves for dying in increasing numbers due to Covid-19.  According to Dr Monica Musenero, the presidential adviser on epidemics, many factors account for the worsening Covid situation, including laxity by the population.

“Taxis were carrying more passengers than allowed, travellers stopped wearing masks and sanitising and abandoned SOPs because they believed Covid-19 was over,” she said.

Dr Musenero said those factors plus the crowding of children in schools by having more than one class at the time escalated the situation.

“This particular spike has been driven by a number of cases in schools and institutions of learning,” she said.

However, her version is sharply disputed by Dr Kizza Besigye, a medical doctor and political leader, who through the period offered guidance to Ugandans on how to guard against Covid-19 infections.  “The situation went out of control, mainly because of the absence of a plan to manage the pandemic. A plan to manage the spread, and transmission of the disease, monitoring of how it was spread and flimsy little plans that were thrown casually were not implemented. And, so, we lost he fight against Covid-19 very early,” he argued.

He said instead of responding to the plight of the people, government was obsessed with holding general elections that were avoidable.

Mr Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, the National Unity Platform leader had a similar sentiment. He said money meant to support vulnerable families with food during the last lockdown was swindled and the food itself couldn’t reach most people.

“This is a scandal! We had more than a year to plan and prepare for this moment. As always, Gen Museveni’s regime chose to embezzle billions borrowed or donated in the name of Covid-19. For now, I encourage you all to realise we’re absolutely on our own and take precautions to avoid getting infected,” he added. 

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