Christmas, Elections and the Tingling fears of Covid19

Monday, December 14, 2020

Next to my office on Plot36 Nile Avenue is a door that has remained ajar, that of a hitherto friend of many years, and former Deputy Executive Director, Col. Shaban (Sebastian) Bantariza who died on October 27, 2020 from the Covid19 he apparently acquired during many of his official public engagements. At his military burial in Mitooma district mourners including his close family could only painfully watch his coffin being lowered into the grave from a safe distance of thirty meters away.

On Wednesday James Saaka, who in August retired from the government National Information Technology Authority (NITA-U) as Executive Director, suddenly succumbed at Case Clinic. Saaka had recently been reported to have recovered from Covid19. Last month, Brig. Emmy Mulindwa, Deputy Chief of Personnel and Administration in the UPDF died of Covid19. These and other similar deaths, trials and tribulations of recent survivors, and hundreds still fighting for their lives in hospitals should be bringing realities of the pandemic closer to home. 

Current official records show that cases of Covid19 infections, patients in hospitals, isolation, quarantine, and deaths are not only exponentially rising but that Kampala and urban centres are the new epicenters unlike at the start when most cases were from entries at border points. Kampala alone now accounts for forth-eight percent of all infections in Uganda, a trend that is worrying. With Christmas and New Year festivities when urbanites travel upcountry, and presidential candidates converging on towns to mobilise for the final assault, these events could be super spreaders of Covid19 to spiral out of control. 

Unfortunately the ambiguous public messaging, inconsistent and uneven enforcement, abuse of systems, willful disregard, and social stress have all conspired to create public repudiation of almost all the measures announced by government to contain Covid19. It seems being individually cautious is the best thing each person can do during the festive and election season, which ought to be encouraged. Using law enforcement officers to prevent or disperse large crowds at wedding, funeral, business and political events is becoming untenable.

For nine months now Uganda has been in partial lockdown imposed on March 20, 2020 because of the then raging Covid19 infections and deaths mostly in China and Europe. Covid19 was so far away from Uganda yet we succeeded in raising the much needed public awareness that prevented it from overwhelming the far-in-between and ill-equipped health infrastructure. 

Uganda and much of Africa, then, and now, have still been spared the kind of devastations seen in most developed countries and consequently, the fears have remained only tingling, perhaps because many families haven’t yet buried their dead. While many businesses slowed, closed, or got completely ruined, others especially in the critically needed public and personal protective equipments mushroomed and are thriving.

As a result leaders, and many Ugandans with few exceptions, have largely thrown down the guards on regular hand-washing, wearing face masks, sanitizing hard surfaces, social distancing, night curfew and messaging that earlier accompanied public health measures. Today, only where there is mandatory restriction, are those measures observed or complied with.

The gradual and incremental relaxations to open livelihoods, businesses, local and foreign travels, and education and religious institutions alongside the government’s ambiguous messaging, inconsistent and uneven handed enforcement have combined to down grade the Covid19 threats among the public. There is false accusation, rising and widespread delusional confidence and cynicism that Covid19 is now being used by government as a tool to deny civil, economic and political liberties.

The many restrictive measures imposed earlier were meant to reduce ‘high risk’ behaviours like hanging out at bars, night clubs, crowding in markets, schools, and places of worship. The belief, encouraged by scientists was that in bars wearing a mask or keeping social distancing erodes later particularly as people get drunk with alcohol. Also if drunks ride home especially on public transport, they could potentially expose even more people, although there is nothing empirical to suggest that the night hastens the spread of Covid19. Keeping business open during the day still exposes people much as the night time does. Early closures can actually cause crowding as people rush and condense in a narrow window of time to buy groceries.

And as anyone who parties knows, when one bar closes, there is often another one on your way home where you take ‘one for the road’. Just because you have left your watering hole doesn’t mean that the night escapade is over. Current trends in Kampala and most urban areas show that the ban on bars and night clubs has made ingenious people to shift business to residential home s, well-knowing the police will not carry out raids on them. And in any case the police patrols too need watering or slap on wrists to soften up things.

We seem to be running out of viable restrictive options  except enforcing a tighter curfew regime, which although may not on its own do much to curb the spread of covid19, it nevertheless sends a strong message to the public that things are getting worse.