KAMPALA – On Tuesday 31 March, 2020, President Museveni, in an address, rebuffed the idea of testing all the 42 million Ugandans for corona virus, saying it was expensive and meaningless. The expensiveness in his statement was validated by the $2,730 million required to test all Ugandans, at $65 per person. He regarded the idea meaningless, I suppose, because we did not have any community reported case(s) at the time and Ugandans adhered to the presidential directives as a religious vow of chastity to catholic priests. Much emphasis henceafter, was put on testing those who showed signs and symptoms. Like many other Ugandans then, I unanimously agreed with the first gentleman of this country.
The President’s decision to downplay the requirement of mass testing was valid, then. And anyone who has been following all the covid-19 updates on this platform and other media sources can easily recall how the first confirmed positive case of a Ugandan on March 21, 2020, saw individuals who had been to the UAE two weeks prior to the first case traced by the ministry and subjected to mandatory institutional quarantine. At that time, everyone, in a combined effort to mitigate spread of the virus, was vigilant of any new entries in their villages, reporting to authorities whoever was suspected and showed signs of the deadly virus.
Hundreds of people would be quarantined after their suspected association with the suspected victims and their contacts. Much as it was scary (to the suspects), our minds kept stable by the much heard and watched work on television by the Ministry of Health.
Further credit is extended to those who did self reporting to designated centres for check up and/or treatment.
The vigilance was further validated when, on April 28, 2020, the Ministry commissioned community testing to establish the status of local transmission, and confirmed no community cases except at boarder districts. We knew where the virus was – truck drivers and expertriates or imported cases.
However, things started to change, the vigilance kept becoming mild as a disappearing ray of light. And it seems, gone are the days when everyone was concerned and when there were no any case in the community.
Ugandans are now loose to follow the guidelines for many reasons, not forgeting the unprecedented abuse of the directives by our would-be chief implementors. This laxed attitude consequently saw a few cases reported in the society to until this time when the Uganda’s curve is on course to the sky; reporting quite many cases and a death on average, daily.
It is not surprising now when community cases are reported in many districts. May be, it wouldn’t call for so much attention for districts on the periphery of the country. It is assumed that not so many people from other distant parts of the country do access those districts on a daily or weekly basis. But Kampala, a central business district with so many people from all parts of the country accessing it on a daily basis as their destination or a stop over to other parts of the country and/or neighbouring countries, calls for an alarm when it is topping the “wall of fame” of covid-19 deaths with so far more than half the total deaths in the country.
Worse still, the testing of those who show signs may not give a broad picture of what constitutes in the societies given the asymptomatic nature of Ugandans and the declaration of covid-19 deaths at the burial and/or after referral to government hospitals. This is supported in many ways. First, corporate entities that have exposed their employees to swab tests have on average registered a case and yet these were active persons with no sign or symptom. Secondly, the gagamel star who was bedridden for 40 days, and a one lady who visited different private hospitals, Mengo being her last spot, were later declared positive at the burial place and on referral to a government hospital respectively, among others! You just can’t imagine how many individuals came freely to the gagamel fallen hero (and other similar cases as his) to express their love and care, only to hear the “bad” news later. Who knows the fate of the nurses in private clinics/hospitals who work on patients that are later declared positive after referral to government hospitals?
The given statistics by ministry of health of 5,594 positive cases of covid-19 and 61 deaths (as of Friday at 1426hrs) may just be an insignificant representation of the big web of the actual cases that can only be rectified by a massive testing and the reignition of strict implementation of the directives and adherence to the SOPs lest our fate remains unknown.
I remember during the locking down of various countries, when the WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is.” He continued, “every case we find and treat limits the expansion of the disease.” At this point in time when we don’t know and may not tell where the virus is -widely spread in the communities, I assume, necessitates an urgent call for shifting of goal lists and consider mass testing as a valid urgency.
Mass testing, yes, might surprise us to learn that more than half the population have been exposed to the virus, largely without symptoms, quite frightening! However, without it, we may have no idea how bad the risk is in the population. Whatever expense to this cause is necessary. Mass testing might be challenging in carrying out, might cost hundreds of billions, but it would be cheap by comparison with the alternatives and it could help enormously.
John Kiwanuka is a graduate of climate change studies and green economy