Uganda has confirmed 686 coronavirus cases, with no death, as of June 12. During late March, the government imposed a nationwide curfew and other restrictive measures, including the ban on gatherings of more than five people and the closing of non-essential businesses and schools. Since June 4, public transport resumed at half capacity, while the reopening of schools has been postponed until July 1. Wearing a mask in public is compulsory. Borders and the airport remain closed, and curfew is still in place.
Just a few months ago, life in Kampala was normal. My wife and I have been living in Uganda for the past four and a half years, initially moving here for a job with a non-profit, and then setting up a business producing high-end coffee (The Coffee Gardens). After a long harvest, we were expecting to spend a few months in Europe before the new season started. Instead, we found ourselves still in Uganda in the midst of a pandemic, wondering when we will next see our friends and families and what the future might hold.
Back in February, just as awareness of the novel coronavirus was beginning, I travelled to Kenya in February for a conference. Given the recent cases of Ebola, yellow fever and measles in the region, having our temperatures checked at the airports was normal, but I was surprised to see hand sanitizer stations placed around the conference venue. For the first day, we were repeatedly encouraged to use them – until they ran out and weren’t replenished.
Over the next few weeks we travelled as usual between Kampala and eastern Uganda, even visited by my mother (who was impressed with the airport screening – or rather dismayed by the lack of checks at Heathrow upon her return). As cases skyrocketed across Europe and the horrors in Italy became apparent, it seemed that all of Uganda was paying attention. The question most asked us was “if Europe is crumbling, what will happen here?”. Immediately, we saw people wearing masks, and temperature checkpoints and handwashing stations appearing. We stopped going to events and moved meetings online. Each day, almost in limbo, we waited for the first case to be reported.
The turning-point was when a friend, already planning on relocating to England, heard that flights might be suspended. She managed to pack her bags and flew out just hours before the airport closed. That weekend, the first official cases of coronavirus in Uganda were declared. With reports of people absconding from quarantine (with one group reaching the DRC border before being apprehended and testing positive), we wondered how far the disease had spread – and if we had made a mistake by staying. We had weighed up the risks of traveling (and potentially infecting our parents) and decided to stay and isolate. But now, although we agreed with closing the borders, we felt completely cut off, with no idea what we might do should things go badly wrong. While there were “evacuation” flights, if we left we had no idea when we could return and what would happen to the business we had spent the last 3 years building.
The following Sunday, we went to a supermarket for supplies. We hadn’t left the house in a week and were feeling apprehensive due to rumours of foreigners being attacked for spreading COVID-19. Although the supermarket was busy, with some clearly getting prepared, it felt like usual. Instead, my experience was a stark contrast to the images of empty shelves and mass hoarding being shared from Europe. We also knew how fortunate we were to be able to stock up, in a country where many people couldn’t.
The following Monday, an immediate and strict lockdown was announced: no public transport, no motorcycle taxis, closure of non-essential shops and a curfew from 7pm. People could work if they walked there or slept onsite, and most informal vendors could no longer work. We had no idea how people relying on a daily wage to provide food for their families would survive. Contrary to our expectations (based on past experience), we saw that people around us were taking the regulations seriously, and were helping their community members who were struggling. A few days later, private vehicles were banned, unless they had special authorisation. Now, the roads near us were empty, the air noticeably cleaner, and the nights quiet. Instead, streets were filled with people jogging and exercising – something we’d never seen before in Kampala. (However, this was seen as breaking social distancing rules, and the president soon banned it, sharing his own home exercise video as compensation).
In the east of Uganda, our colleagues reported that the rules were being followed in their villages too. We sent text messages to our partner farmers, who live in a remote, rural area, to suspend training and provide advice on handwashing and social distancing. One lady, Lornah, replied back: “Yes, I wash my hands because I know the disease was there”. I was astonished at the level of sensitisation that had already taken place, reaching people living on the tops of mountains.
As the weeks progressed and the number of positive cases rose slowly (and confirmed deaths remained at zero), we maintained an uneasy calm, punctuated by bouts of frustration at the delays to our work. But we are amongst the most fortunate: we have a garden and live on a quiet road, near to small shops and well stocked vegetable stands, and can use supermarket motorcycle delivery services. We can also maintain a daily routine of waiting for the temperature to drop in the afternoons, so we can walk laps of our street, hoping to reach 7,000 steps before the curfew starts.
During the past three months, I’ve been impressed with the level of communication from the government. In addition to daily Twitter updates, government briefings are streamed online, and usually followed by transcripts. However, with an election scheduled for next year, we are also watching politics play out on social media. The president calls the youth “Bazukulu” or “grandchildren”, portraying himself as the only one able to lead the country through the crisis. The opposition supported his measures (even producing a viral coronavirus awareness song) while tweeting allegations of police brutality. We then see the president giving credit to these opposition leaders for contributing to the COVID-19 fund, while chiding members of his own party for breaking rules – maintaining some form of equilibrium and national unity. Sadly, it’s not hard to see the government-sponsored food distribution to 1.5m households in the greater Kampala area as a way to win the support of typical opposition supporters – especially while making it illegal for opposition members to do the same for their constituents. It’s clear that no one wants to undermine national efforts to tackle the crisis, but neither do they want to be seen as irrelevant or miss political opportunities.
Whilst I’ve been impressed with many of the measures introduced and the response by the population, I’m reminded daily that we live in a country with weak institutions and undermined by corruption. The majority of new cases are amongst truck drivers, but news channels have shared videos of border officials allegedly soliciting bribes. Given restrictions on the use of private vehicles, there have been widespread reports of fake permits and demands for bribes by police at roadblocks. Despite this, I’m encouraged by the perseverance of policy-makers using the lockdown as an opportunity for good – to upgrade regional hospitals, complete much-needed road projects and overhaul public transportation. As the lockdown is eased, I – like everyone else – hope the government will find the right balance to enable the country to get back to work without risking spikes in infections. In the long-term, I hope Ugandans will demand a continuation of the cleaner air, quieter nights, calmer roads and responsive government that we’ve experienced over the past few months. In the words of my landlady, “Things won’t be the same – people have seen how things can be and they won’t want to go back to how it was”.