KAMPALA – Your Excellency, Mr. President, our country, in tandem with the whole world, is under siege from a deadly, invisible enemy, coronavirus (Covid-19).
Barely two months following its discovery in Wuhan, China, had this little-known new virus already turned the whole world upside down. In its wake, we are witnessing the decimation of lives and the collapse of livelihoods (economies) on a scale unknown since the influenza epidemic of 1918.
Overcoming the pandemic has become an existential struggle for all societies and all governments. For the most part, all governments are drawing from the same repertoire of response measures (testing & tracing, washing hands, and physical distancing, banning gatherings, closing schools, controlling travel and borders, stopping work, imposing quarantines and lockdowns, etc), under guidelines provided by World Health Organisation (WHO).
The effectiveness of responses has varied, turning largely on the timing, robustness and comprehensiveness of the response measures adopted.
Mr President, here in Uganda, you have been spearheading our national response. That is the reason for addressing this open letter to you. Since mid-March, you have now convoked the nation on 15 occasions to deliver televised addresses, devoted to coronavirus.
You have issued 35 mandatory directives. The nation-wide lockdown, first announced on 21 March, has been renewed three times.
From the outset, I must express a very warm tribute to our health professionals and scientists. They have risen to this moment with great professionalism and dedication. Under the very able leadership of our Health minister Dr Jane Ruth Aceng.
They have demonstrated, against enormous odds that they are up to any task, anytime. The stellar performance of these unsung heroes masks the appalling conditions in which they have been labouring for so many years.
Another impressive success has been the awareness campaign. All communities in Uganda are now well-informed about coronavirus.
Hand-washing routine has caught on everywhere. May this continue long after coronavirus! The big challenge, requiring more effort, remains practicing physical distancing. Ugandans are finding it difficult to adapt to this rather strange, anti-social, but absolutely necessary conduct.
For the foreseeable future, we are bound to observe physical distancing everywhere.
Mr President, the 35 measures you have promulgated are all on target. Indeed, all of them correspond to WHO guidelines and actions taken by other countries.
In order to draw necessary lessons for the long fight ahead and for future crises, it is important to review key aspects of Uganda’s response. This is the purpose of this open letter to you.
- Major Lapses in Response
We have been especially weak on testing. Yet aggressive testing within communities has been the key to effective response everywhere. Without wide randomised community testing, we cannot know the levels of infection within the country.
The focus, during March, on monitoring arriving passengers at Entebbe Airport, was necessary and important. Unfortunately, this exclusive preoccupation with one entry point, diverted attention from three equally crucial sources of risk that needed very early intervention, namely: travellers entering Uganda through land borders; cross-border truck drivers; and community testing.
The rapid testing survey conducted recently is useful, but it came quite late and its coverage remained narrow. Mercifully, the survey results are reassuring. But without broader and longer community testing, it would be premature to conclude that “we have no community transmission”.
Unlike entry into developed countries, most travellers enter Uganda through formal and informal land border crossings; some also enter via Lakes Victoria and Lake Albert. Apart from South Sudan, coronavirus announced its impending arrival by striking our neighbours first.
From the very beginning, the government should have focused, like a beam, on these high-risk, corruption-prone, porous land border points. But, until early April, it was ‘business-as-usual’ at these border-points. This was a major lapse in response.
The worst and most costly lapse in response relates to the cross-border, long-distance truck drivers. We have known, since the earlier experience with HIV/Aids that this group can be a particularly efficient conveyor of contagion.
Following a series of WHO alerts, and certainly the arrival of coronavirus in our own neighborhood, the government should have made the monitoring and testing of truck drivers its absolute top priority. This was added to the to-do priority list only in April.
Incidentally, I notice that the government has suddenly started to divide into two categories (Ugandans and non-Ugandans) persons who have tested positive within Uganda. This is chauvinistic and misleading. This fight is about public health, not nationality.
The high spate of infections emanating from Dubai seemed to have caught the government by great surprise. Dubai has become a massive air transit hub for travel to China, Europe and North America.
For our traders, it is the largest sourcing centre for consumer goods destined for Uganda and many other African countries. That is why the three daily flights, from Entebbe to Dubai, are always packed. In the context of Covid-19, our intelligence would have quickly signaled Dubai as a source of far greater risk for Ugandan travellers than any European or North American country.
If ever there was a crisis tailor-made for a collective response by the East African Community, then it is certainly coronavirus. By now, several East African Countries (EAC) virtual summits should have been held, devoted to coronavirus, to charting a harmonised EAC-wide strategy and response.
Where is the EAC, when we need it most? Valiant but divergent national interventions are inefficient and not as effective. For Uganda particularly, as a small, landlocked, transit country, it will be well-nigh impossible to insulate itself from what may continue to circulate in the regional neighbourhood. It is simply in everybody’s interest to press for collective regional response; it is late, but not too late.
- Important pending measures
Mr. President, you have issued a raft of directives. However, we have not yet heard anything concerning some of the most critically necessary measures. Let me signal some.
Most people are hurting terribly from the impact of the lockdown.
Families across the country are actually starving. A lot of Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) risk collapsing altogether. We have been waiting for two critical packages from the government.
First, a relief package to provide immediate mitigation and support for those in desperate need; this package should include relief measures for taxes, rents, loans, utilities, and food.
Second, a financial package designed to stimulate economic recovery after lockdown. And when this package is designed, please let it also include the poor Ugandans. The elite business people have spoken eloquently through the Private Sector Foundation, asking for a stimulus package, and voices from the Ministry of Finance and yourself indicate that they could well get it, through Uganda Development Bank and other ways.
As that is being planned, let there be a simultaneous effort to target the poorer Ugandans in urban centres and rural areas, say through the Microfinance Support Centre or any other means that can reach them effectively.
It is important to avoid politics in a process like this. The 2020/2021 Budget was prepared before coronavirus turned the world up-side-down. We have a radically new situation. That budget must be revisited.
It should now be devoted to three priority tasks: containing Covid-19, mitigating the impact of the lockdown, and facilitating economic recovery.
In the regular budget as well as the recent supplementary budget, “classified” expenditure, continues to loom unnaturally large, amounting to Shs2.8 trillion and Shs524 billion, respectively. The government must now level with Ugandans about the purposes of this enormous, unaccountable bonanza.
For years, this mysterious expenditure has operated effectively as a private An automated teller machine (ATM) at State House. It was always a scandal. But given the conditions of Ugandans today, this is all the more unacceptable and immoral. The “classified” funds should be redeployed for the epic fight against coronavirus.
We all are very proud of the heroic efforts of our health workers and scientists. To underscore the importance of their work and the appreciation of a grateful nation, the government should immediately earmark funds to support them and facilitate their crucial work.
Immediate provision should include adequate Personal protective equipment (PPE), necessary hospital equipment, logistical support, ambulances, and decent wages.
We are now witnessing the humiliating spectacle of the government, begging bowl in hand, frantically pleading for donations from the public, to buy everything; PPEs, ambulances, vehicles and machines for hospitals, testing kits, etc.
Where then has all the government money gone, from taxes, international aid and grants, and loans? Before this crisis, how many ambulances and hospital vehicles had been purchased by the government itself (not non-governmental organisations, embassies, or MPs)?
Instead of investing in our own health service, the government has been spending more than Shs500b annually for medical treatment of big shots abroad. In the 2020/2021 Budget, the allocation for the Ministry of Health is Shs2.8 trillion.
Mr President, I notice that, with long-haul cargo stuck at our borders, you have been calling for the urgent revival of the railways, arguing, correctly, that “railways is a far more efficient and economic means of transporting cargo than trucks”.
I welcome this epiphany. It was your administration that deliberately dismantled (in favour of self-serving private interests) the railways, together with several key institutions and services, including cooperatives; marketing boards for coffee, cotton and produce; Uganda Commercial Bank; Uganda Airlines; subsidies and support to farmers; etc.
These institutions and services were designed to empower Ugandans and build a solid domestic economic base.
A particularly important pending issue is the reopening of schools. Closing was easy, the opening is more complex. I support the government’s decision to start with candidate classes only. In the ‘new norm’, it will be necessary to organise physical distancing, hand-washing, mask-wearing, temperature monitoring, and some randomised testing, in schools.
This is a major undertaking. Moreover, most rural schools simply do not have the facilities to adapt to the ‘new norm’. A lot of planning, reorganisation and new investment are required before full reopening can be safe.
In any democracy, there is no exercise of power without accountability. That is why, as they take tough response measures to contain the pandemic, we see leaders, all over the world, regularly reporting and seeking approval of their parliaments.
This has not been the case in Uganda. This is highly anomalous. It is critical that the far-reaching measures you are compelled to take are reviewed and scrutinised by Parliament.
In the televised addresses, you have unveiled several immediate steps and the reasons behind them. We now need a national plan of action, setting out a coherent and systematic strategy for this long fight. Since you have started to ease the lockdown, people are eager to know where all this is heading.
III. Non-partisan Leadership.
Mr President, when their nations have been under a crisis of this magnitude, historic leaders have reached deep within their own souls and decided to park on the side their entrenched partisanship, self-serving interests and parochialisms; this for the sake of the greater common good. At this seminal moment for Uganda, will you find it within yourself to do this? Some of the recent actions have been quite alarming.
Consider the saga of food distribution. All over the world, when the population is exposed to hunger (as Ugandans are today), their government will readily welcome all who can pitch in charities, churches and mosques, leaders from all sectors to distribute relief to those in distress.
At this very moment, this is going on in most countries. Alas, in Uganda, you have decreed otherwise. Apart from the government taskforce, nobody is allowed to distribute relief. Can it be that calculated political gains that may accrue from this monopoly are trumping the desperate needs of starving Ugandans?
Mr President, you have gone one step further. In an extraordinary development, you have actually ordained that any persons found distributing food, outside the official taskforce, would be charged with committing “attempted murder”! When I first heard you say this, I was stunned.
I thought this was a ‘slip of the tongue’ that you would immediately correct. Instead, you have repeated this outrageous pronouncement with obvious glee. How have we come to this?
This statement has incited certain elements in the security forces to commit atrocities. This is the backdrop to the arrest, torture and savaging of Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake. I could not believe that your only reaction to this horror was to ask a casual rhetorical question.
You wondered aloud why the police singled out Mr Zaake, while turning a blind eye to food distribution by government ministers and NRM big wigs. So, in the savaging of Mr Zaake, the President and the Commander-In-Chief has suddenly become a helpless bystander! All this calls for serious soul-searching.
Mr President, the world will not be the same after coronavirus is done with us. From the ravages of this pandemic we can draw seminal lessons to reset and reorder key aspects of our nation’s comprehensive brokenness. Once again, this calls for a genuinely patriotic, non-partisan leadership that is animated, above all else, by the best interests of Uganda and Ugandans.
In this, history will judge them, not by their words, but “by the fruit they bear”.
Mr President, lest I forget, I saw your office push-up routine. Quite impressive. Please, accept my best wishes for your continued good health. May God protect and bless our country.
This writer, Mr. Olara Otunnu, is the former presidential candidate and ex-UPC party president