KAMPALA – In his address to the nation, dated 18th March 2020, the President of the Republic of Uganda – H.E Yoweri Kaguta Museveni issued guidelines to guard against the coronavirus, which was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. In government efforts to curb the spread of the novel virus and reduce the concentration of almost 15 million young Ugandans distributed in 7,308 Pre-Primary Schools, 36,285 Primary Schools, 5,553 Secondary Schools, 49 Universities and 1,543 Tertiary Institutions, all schools and institutions were directed to close, and a ‘stay home’ order was passed. Ultimately, all the young Ugandans retreated to about 8 million homesteads spread across the country, majority of which are in rural settings.
To date, many women are forced to ‘lockdown’ with their abusers amidst disrupted Gender Based Violence support services, thereby adversely escalating violence against women and girls – which is one of the most ancient, widespread and devastating human rights violations in Uganda. According to the Uganda Demographic Household Survey (2016), 56% of women experience spousal violence and 22% experience sexual violence. This is in addition to other harmful practices such as child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation, all of which still persist in many parts of the country. Therefore as Government implements trace, test, treat – strategies and the 5 strategies commissioned by the Ministry of Health, it’s crucial to include community voices and adapt local knowledge in the COVID-19 response and recovery plan, both at National and District level.
We appreciate Government efforts to provide food relief to the vulnerable populations, and the private sector players who have made generous contribution to the National COVID-19 Task Force; and recognise the centrality and leadership of the Ministry of Health in coordinating the COVID-19 response plan, but we urge the Government to include other vital organs such as the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development in as far as playing an active role in this process. Consequently, the District Local Government, The Department of Community Based Services and the Department of Production should design pro-active measures for effective and expanded social safety nets to respond to and facilitate the recovery plan for COVID-19.
Considering the fact that women, the elderly, adolescents, youth and children, persons with disabilities and refugees experience the highest degree of socio-economic marginalization, they have become even more vulnerable during this pandemic. This is due to factors such as lack of access to effective surveillance and early-warning systems, coupled with limited access to health services.
Recent media reports reveal that mothers are delivering babies on the road sides and patients are wheeled on chairs to access healthcare, while women are physically and sexually abused in their homes, with no access to justice, as a result of halted public and private transport. Experts have also predicted that COVID-19 and its deepening pre-existing inequalities will have significant impacts on various sectors, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems, which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic. The populations most at risk are majority of Ugandans who heavily depend on the informal sector, communities that occupy disaster prone areas like Bududa, Manafa, Bulambuli, Sironko, Soroti, Katakwi, Amuria, Butaleja, Mbale, Bukwo, Bundibugyo, Ntoroko, Kabale, Kisoro, Kasese etc., communities that have inadequate access to social services especially the urban poor in Kampala and Wakiso and those without political influence, including communities with limited capacities and opportunities to cope and adapt. It is therefore prudent to support the capacity of vulnerable populations at grass root in the emergency response and recovery process so as to rebuild equal, inclusive and resilient societies.
In the recent past, community participation and solidarity have proven to be very strong tenets in controlling and managing disease outbreaks in Uganda. Therefore, the effective use of the formal and informal community participation structures and other existing civic spaces are key in ensuring communities are active in the creation of a response and recovery system. Also, previous epidemics illustrate the value of engaging women when communicating about risks given the fact that women are a disproportionate part of the health workforce. As primary caregivers to children, the elderly, and the ill, we must recognize and engage women in risk communication and community engagement processes.
Government should therefore recognize gender dynamics in the COVID-19 national response, so as to boost the effectiveness of the national sensitization and communication; and tailor COVID-19 community engagement interventions based on gender, and local culture to enhance community uptake of prevention and response interventions. In the same vein, COVID-19 IEC materials designed in various local languages in the country should be supported by a clear and effective dissemination plan to reach grass root communities, including those who can not read and write.
As the co-founder of the Uganda Chapter of the Movement for Community-led Development (CLD), in line with government guidelines, The Hunger Project Uganda has leveraged CLD network to continue engaging communities on the COVID-19 pandemic through sensitization campaigns on radios and other community communication platforms,. Amidst this lockdown, CLD Network has shifted to working virtually, and sharing lessons learnt, which has greatly promoted joint learning and adaptation within the movement.
Cognisant of the 2030 Agenda and its associated SDGs, in its quest to leave no one behind and reach the furthest behind first, the Government of Uganda should exercise its mandate to adapt community voices and action in the COVID-19 response and recovery process.
Gerald Kato Manager, Strategic Partnerships The Hunger Project Uganda