KAMPALA – There is a video clip circulating on social media in which a lady dressed in an NRM attire challenges the President’s decisions on banning public transport especially boda boda and also closing of markets.
She said it was not right to do so because these people lived day to day and by closing they will be denied opportunity to find money to feed themselves. She demanded that government gives such people food since they live day to day. She definitely had a point but given the seriousness of the Coronavirus pandemic any other decision not to stop them would be fatal for the country. The Coronavirus is a very dangerous virus without a vaccine and no known drug to treat it. It will be irresponsible of government if it didn’t warn people of such a danger and advise them on what to do. Banning bodas, public transport and closing crowded markets was the logical thing to do. These are places where thousands of people come into contact with one another most and highest risk for contracting the virus.
Leaders must take decision at all times and when there is a crisis their decisions are more subject to scrutiny. These decisions do not necessarily have to be popular as long as they are in and safe guard public interest. The Coronavirus is wild card, it is something that was never expected not even predicated. It has no known cure. It is invisible. Today science is able to predict certain natural disasters like earthquakes but not this one. It is said that it is man-made but it is possible that even those who made it, did not know the consequences if the virus went on rampage as it has done. It just caused a storm worldwide. It is set to change the way the world works.
It is possible that since World War II, no single matter or issue has affected the world as this virus has done. And it is not visible! Even developed countries like Italy and Spain and the USA are finding a problem in managing it.
These countries have a fairly well-organized society, orderly housing, a good health system, a good financial system and a good food distribution system. Despite that, the corona pandemic gave them and continues to give them a lot of trouble. The world is learning what it is and how to handle it, shut down. Lock down to handle what you have discovered to stop the spread and destroy it. China has ably done that. Other developed countries are struggling to do that. But how about the resource poor African countries. What kind of decision should African leaders take.
What should a leader in a resource poor country do in such conditions? Before you take a decision, it is only natural that you define the problem. You need to understand the problem and devise a systematic response to it.
Unfortunately, the Coronavirus problem has not been defined well because it is still evolving. Worse still not visible. How could a well-protected person like Prince Charles in the UK and the British Prime Minister test positive! The World Health Organization (WHO) keeps adding to the dimensions of the virus. You can only react as it evolves. Given the experience in China It has been found that a complete shutdown of the country or region/town for a certain time period is the way to go. But that shutdown must be accompanied with assessing the capability of identifying, testing and where necessary treating those who are infected with the virus. China built 2 hospitals for 2300 patients in one week. UK is doing it, so is the USA, purposely to handle the patients of the virus. It should also be accompanied with the measure to address business closure and support for those who don’t have the money to support themselves.
Indeed, the coronavirus problem has been identified partially in Uganda. We don’t know yet the magnitude of the problem. We don’t yet know how people are getting it. Even those that come from abroad cannot tell how they contracted it. We don’t know how it will manifest. Because of resource constraints, we unfortunately don’t have capacity to deal with it even if we know what it is. We cannot identify everybody with the problem or suspected with the problem. We cannot treat everybody with the problem and in the event that we know who they are it’s not possible for us to treat all of them because we don’t have the money to do so. While government has in recent years constructed hospitals it doesn’t have facilities to handle a Coronavirus crisis. China, UK and other had to build hospitals. This is despite their current good facilities. China’s actions were a good response to an evolving problem. It is said that Italy took time to accept the problem and react hence the overwhelming number of infections and death. But given what we know it made sense to act early to prevent rather than cure. The lock down by President Museveni was a responsible decision early enough.
The lockdown announced by the President was for two weeks. He had earlier closed schools for a month. It may be more difficult to tell how long it will last. Lockdown may help like it did in China and indeed other countries. Unfortunately, the nature of our economy, our housing patterns (mostly mizigo in urban slums), our food storage and food distribution system are not developed sufficiently. Take a case of housing you can’t lock down people in slums. In slums people share bathrooms, pit latrines and cook from shared verandahs. In the villages if water has to be fetched from a community well or water pump on a daily basis you can’t lock up such people such places serve an entire village. Any government dealing with them must think through. Lock down in developed countries keeps people indoors. All facilities are indoors. people don’t interact. In Africa people have to interact! What does it take to achieve governments’ intended objective and how?
The lady in the video recommended that government should give food to boda boda people. President Museveni responded last Tuesday 31, March 2020, that he will do it. As I write, it has started. But like in any decision you make, you will always have those in favor and those who oppose it.
Some oppose with valid reasons, others without! Others politicize it. In this case what was public interest? This is what the President had to keep in mind and so he did.
Waswa Balunywa is the Principal of Makerere University Business School