Corona crisis

Uganda’s Fraught Response to COVID-19

By Sara Weschler, 1 June 2020

In Uganda, during the early months of this year, the coronavirus crisis felt like little more than a distant rumor. In a country that has confronted repeated outbreaks of such devastating diseases as Ebola and cholera, the threat of COVID-19 seemed almost quaint to some. Throughout a month long visit between mid-February and mid-March I heard multiple friends muse that the virus might not even reach Uganda – or that if it did, the population would barely notice. Others I spoke to viewed matters more cynically, though. “The leaders of this country are very happy to hear about this corona,” a shopkeeper in Kampala told me. “They hear that word and to them it means more money, more power. If it fails to come here, you will find this government of ours will go and pick it from somewhere to bring it to our country themselves.”

Of course on March 21, 2020, when the virus did reach Uganda, it was not through a government conspiracy. Instead, as in so many countries, the disease arrived by plane, carried by an unwitting traveller – in this case, a 36-year-old national returning from Dubai. Three days earlier, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni had preemptively closed schools to slow the spread of the pandemic. Now he announced that he would be sealing the nation's borders to all non-commercial traffic and suspending all passenger flights into and out of the country, as well. Over the course of the next week Ugandans would learn of a growing list of restrictions on their activities and movements. By April 1st they would find themselves under one of the strictest lockdowns on the African continent – one which would be repeatedly extended over the subsequent two months and which, though now gradually beginning to loosen, has yet to be given a definitive endpoint.

In some ways Uganda’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been remarkable. As of the writing of this piece on May 31st, Uganda has screened more than 96,000 people for COVID-19. Fewer than 500 of those have tested positive for the disease, and the country has yet to record a single death from the virus. Major publications such as The New Yorker and The Washington Post have singled out the Ugandan government for praise, reflecting that Western countries might do well to learn from its example. Such coverage is an important counterpoint to the doom-mongering coronavirus journalism that has predicted calamity in Africa for months now, and that manages to frame even the continent’s successes vis-à-vis the pandemic in a disparaging light. Nevertheless, much of the praise for Uganda’s containment of COVID-19 obscures grim complexities in the country’s pandemic response.

Uganda’s lockdown has included, among other things, a rigid curfew, the suspension of all public transit, and punishing restrictions on movement – with people banned from using even their private vehicles for transport. While certain food sellers have been allowed to remain in business, they could do so only provided that they camped out in markets, cut off from their families. The vast majority of the population, meanwhile, has been banned from any work whatsoever. In a country where millions live hand to mouth, the implications of such a prohibition are dire.

In the first days of the lockdown, as sources of income dried up and food prices skyrocketed (the price of salt, for example, quintupled in the final week of March), I received multiple panicked WhatsApp messages a day. “People are going to starve,” one friend wrote. “I fear hunger will get us before corona can,” lamented another.

When members of People Power, the political opposition movement headed by singer-turned-parliamentarian and presidential hopeful Robert Kyagulanyi (aka Bobi Wine), organized to provide food aid to households severely impacted by the lockdown, Museveni reacted by announcing that any politician found distributing food would be charged with attempted murder. The government then committed to distributing provisions itself, yet the aid they have provided falls drastically short of current need.

Museveni’s heavy-handed response to People Power’s aid efforts is itself indicative of another complexity of the lockdown. After more than three decades under Museveni’s rule, the Ugandan populace has in recent years increasingly chafed at the President’s grip. With opposition figures surging in popularity, and a presidential election scheduled for 2021, Museveni faces unprecedented challenges to his control over the country. The lockdown, however, has served as an opportunity to reassert his power over Ugandans.

It is telling, for instance, that state security is among the only sectors exempted from the constraints of the lockdown. Long viewed as an integral component of Museveni’s rule, Uganda’s military, police, and other state forces have been given largely free rein throughout the coronavirus crisis. They have taken to ruthlessly enforcing coronavirus containment measures through mass arrests, as well as violent – and, on more than one occasion, deadlybeatings and shootings. When Francis Zaake, a young parliamentarian and prominent member of the People Power movement defied Museveni by continuing to arrange food aid for his constituents, he was seized from his home, detained for ten days, and so brutally tortured that he ended up hospitalized and unable to see. Meanwhile, even as they are ordered to remain in their houses, some ordinary Ugandans still face government land grabs and evictions from their homes – as in the case of this village where, at the height of the lockdown, multiple families saw their homesteads burned to the ground by state forces.

Museveni, whose exact age is a matter of some dispute, but who admits to being at least 75 years old, is fond of referring to Ugandans as his bazukulu, or grandchildren. The designation not only enables him to cast a benevolent glow upon his often-brutal 34-year rule over a country with a median age of 16.7, but also gives him license to scold the Ugandan populace under the guise of offering concerned, grandfatherly advice. When criticism mounted over his regime’s coronavirus containment measures and the woeful inadequacy of governmental food aid during the lockdown, the President responded with a bizarre televised tutorial on how to divvy up a batch of posho – the maize-flour porridge that forms the staple of many Ugandan diets. The message was clear: in this moment of crisis, impoverished Ugandans weren’t suffering and going hungry because the government had abused their rights and failed to adequately provide for them; they were suffering and going hungry because they themselves had failed to responsibly portion their allotted food. As one Ugandan journalist ruefully observed, this lesson in responsible consumption came in a week when the President also quietly awarded bonuses of 40 million shillings each (~ €9690) to 317 members of parliament who had previously facilitated the removal of a presidential age limit from the Ugandan constitution. All of this played out less than two weeks after the IMF had granted Museveni’s government a $491.5 million loan intended to mitigate the economic impact of coronavirus control measures in Uganda.

Faced with everything from indifference to outright violence from governing elites and their enforcers, Ugandan citizens have nevertheless responded to the challenges of the lockdown with both ingenuity and courage. When it became clear that the motorcycle taxis known as boda-bodas would be allowed to move with cargo (though still not with passengers), Bobi Wine and his People Power team sidestepped Museveni’s injunction against politicians distributing food by mobilizing a fleet of boda drivers to deliver provisions to vulnerable families in and around Uganda’s capital. Throughout the country others confronted the crisis in their own ways. Less than three months after her release from jail on charges of insulting the President, political dissident Stella Nyanzi flouted the lockdown by leading a protest that called on the government to feed the population and respect their human rights – an act for which she was brutally rearrested. Some 400km north, sex workers in the town of Gulu joined together to petition their local government for food, warning that if no assistance were forthcoming they would begin to reveal the names of their clients. Unsurprisingly, officials rushed to meet the women’s demands. Meanwhile, when lockdown rules were revised specifically to allow vehicle owners to drive pregnant women to hospitals for antenatal care, some expectant mothers seized on the loophole as an income-generating opportunity. Unable to work in the lockdown, they now began to earn money by renting themselves out as cover for local vehicle owners who wished to use their cars or motorcycles for personal errands.

Yet however inventive these solutions may be, the fact remains that the government’s coronavirus containment measures come at a great cost to ordinary Ugandans. Though the shopkeeper I spoke to in February missed the mark with his conspiracy theory, he was nevertheless on to something when he predicted that the country’s ruling elite would use the pandemic as an opportunity to secure more money, and perhaps above all, more power.

On March 13th the Daily Monitorreported that, in light of the coronavirus crisis, “a concerned citizen” identified as one Abey Mgugu had petitioned the High Court of Uganda to postpone the upcoming 2021 presidential election. The first case of COVID-19 in the country would not be recorded for another eight days. Nevertheless, Mgugu apparently claimed that the Ugandan government would need a full five years to bring the coronavirus under control. He therefore called on the Court to halt all elections until 2026.

The article prompted a cascade of eye-roll and laughter emojis on Twitter. “Mr musevin [sic] at play he never run shortage of ideas,” wrote one commenter. “U hv nt reported any case,,, already u want 2 hv life time presidency....” observed another. Whoever Abey Mgugu was, and whatever his motivations for petitioning the Court may have been, many readers saw his story as evidence that Museveni was already maneuvering to use the pandemic to his political advantage.

Two months later, in an interview with a local television station on May 11th, Museveni himself proclaimed that, “To have elections when the virus is still there... It will be madness.” Reuters reported the statement as the first indication that the President was considering a postponement. But to many Ugandans, the proposal did not seem quite so new. As one friend quipped, after the news of the statement appeared online, “The virus has made the old man bold. He no longer needs to hide behind ‘concerned citizens’ to advance his agenda!”

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Sara Weschler is a PhD student at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences at Ghent University in Belgium. Her research focusses on Northern Uganda.