Uganda’s first coronavirus case was confirmed on 18 March. Since then, the country has recorded about 253 cases, 70 recoveries, and no documented deaths. Fascinatingly, a decade earlier, in 2010, the Uganda National Policy for Disaster Preparedness and Management anticipated that a new strain of influenza would result in 7.4 million deaths due to the interconnected nature of the world. Bearing this in mind and coupled with the experience of four Ebola virus epidemics between 2000 and 2014, the country has instituted some of the strictest measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The tiny, landlocked East African country has closed all schools, places of worship, non-essential businesses, and public transport, and sealed off its borders to passenger traffic. While the most economically vulnerable sections of the population disapprove of the overreaching actions, the government has emphasized that the experience of combating various infectious diseases gives them the knowledge to respond effectively to the current crisis.
Samuel Kasirye works as a Programme Manager at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s East Africa Regional Office in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Critical Voices Emerge
The face of Uganda’s response to the pandemic is President Yoweri Museveni, an army general who has led the country for the last 34 years. Criticized by his opponents for his militarized approach to the health crisis, the president insists that his government’s quick action limited the spread of the virus to only ten community infections, with the rest of the cases imported. The government has been commended for re-energizing the administration of its local councils in all wards, which are now the driving force shaping and delivering local response measures. Local task forces are responsible for case management, surveillance, health promotion, community coordination and implementation of protection mechanisms, as well as the continuous delivery of essential services. As the central government begins allocating food to disadvantaged communities, local governments play a significant role in identifying and mapping of vulnerable groups, identifying recipients, and ensuring organized and secure delivery of food.
Despite these efforts, eight weeks of the lockdown appear to finally be taking their toll—particularly on the most vulnerable urban dwellers. Once lauded as the most functional response to the crisis in the region, major structural and policy flaws are beginning to erode the advances achieved by early efforts in Uganda. The government’s food distribution programme covering the most populated districts of Kampala and Wakiso has been lethargic and fraught with the typical accusations of corruption. In response to this state of affairs, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, an academic and one of the most popular critics of President Museveni, was arrested together with other civil society actors for demonstrating against the slow distribution of food.
The group argued that the Ugandan government was sluggish in reaching the city’s most vulnerable residents, including people living with HIV and AIDS, pregnant mothers, households headed by children, the homeless, and the physically disabled. Nyanzi also claimed that the government had turned the pandemic into a procurement exercise mainly benefitting a few individuals and companies with political connections to the state. The demonstrators’ petition also demanded an explanation from the office of the Prime Minster concerning, among other things, the various allegations of substandard provisions, political profiling of beneficiaries, abuses of human rights by the security forces enforcing the presidential directives, and increases in classified State House budgets.
In response to these claims, the Ugandan Ministry of Disaster Preparedness clarified that the disruptions in the food distribution exercise were due to the difficulty and inaccessibility of many urban settlements. The ministry added that the Uganda People’s Defence Forces, Police and Red Cross food delivery team had to negotiate areas that cannot be accessed quickly by trucks, forcing teams to walk down difficult terrain with heavy loads. The ministry also explained that social distancing guidelines inevitably meant that teams have to move from door to door to protect both themselves as well as the beneficiaries, further slowing the process.
A Mixed Reception
Uganda is now at a crossroads. There have been various discussions around the lawfulness of Uganda’s COVID-19 regulations and the manner in which they were reached. Since no State of Emergency has been declared, questions have arisen around whether presidential speeches can be declared and published as legal decrees by the Minister of Health under the Public Health Act. Adding to the confusion, legal experts claim that some issues raised by the president during his various public appearances were left out of the decrees, while new issues were taken up instead. Although the Minister of Health certainly has the authority to bring up new matters, the oversight stipulated in the guidelines has generated unease, especially given a number of incidents in which undisciplined elements within the security forces were excessively enthusiastic to enforce the lockdown. It is therefore critical for the population to be vigilant about growing human rights abuses and violations of the constitution by keeping an eye on what measures contain the attendant legal instruments and holding government accountable in this regard. In the same vein, a suggestion to postpone the February 2021 presidential elections has been floated, and President Museveni stated that the exercise could be suspended if the pandemic does not show signs of easing after June 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic in Uganda began as a health crisis but has now turned into an economic crisis that is likely to reverse the gains made in the last decade, particularly on the back of the devastating effects of the 2008–2009 financial crisis. The government has taken to heavy borrowing as it responds to the economic impacts of the current crisis, and on 6 May the IMF reported that it authorized a loan of 491.5 million US dollars from its Rapid Credit Facility, essentially exhausting the country’s funding quota. In its announcement, the IMF indicated that the loans would help finance health, social security, and macro-economic stability initiatives, resolve the immediate balance of payments and fiscal needs emerging from the COVID-19 epidemic, and catalyse additional assistance from the international community. The new funds from the Rapid Credit Facility do not require countries to have a full-fledged programme in place, and there is already a growing fear among citizens concerning the loan’s effectiveness given the ongoing cash bonanza in the country—yet the loan has a grace period of only five-and-a-half years.
One of the few silver linings to this crisis is that the once rather apolitical segment of the population is now taking greater interest in governance issues. The Ugandan government’s policy prescriptions and practices are attracting greater public scrutiny on issues such as the state of the health sector, unemployment, revitalizing a crumbling economy, or the precarious state of the East African Community. Similarly, there has been a re-awakening of community spirit, with many people from all parts of society contributing food and money to the national and regional COVID-19 task forces set up by presidential decree, supporting the most vulnerable members of their communities with essential supplies, and assisting local governments in reporting suspected cases. While there have been many dissenting voices, the contradictory public response to government approaches can be partially explained by the overwhelming support for the health workers led by Minister of Health Hon. Jane Acheng, who has personally been singled out for praise. Allan Kalangi, who manages a community radio station, argues that service for many has become a symbol of political action and a demonstration that the conception of a “New Normal” must involve a radical change of what neoliberalism has normalized—and, more importantly, full civil participation. For now, interpretations of the situation in Uganda are mixed depending on who you speak to. While some suggest that the government has performed well in containing the spread of the virus, others contend that the crisis has given an opportunity to the ruling National Resistance Movement to further entrench its 34-year rule.