Our nation is faced with a very difficult time. Day in day out, Ugandans are dying in droves after contracting COVID19. We are not where some nations were at the height of the pandemic last year and we pray that we don’t get there. It is a time to pray and hold onto each other but most importantly a time to reflect yet again on how our country can be governed better.
Many Ugandans — me included, think that the regime is under-reporting the numbers of the victims of this pandemic. Firstly, it has been the regime’s modus-operandi to exaggerate its successes and downplay its failures. Secondly, they lack the capacity to know in real terms the exact cost of the virus in terms of human life. It costs an arm and a leg to test for COVID19 in Uganda. Over a year into the pandemic, there has been no effort to ensure mass testing for citizens. There are just a handful of citizens who can afford 250,000 to do the test in a private facility. The queues at public facilities, besides posing a risk of infection, are often long and the test kits often not available. This, coupled with the lockdown, means that most people are not testing. Many fall sick, die and are quickly buried. In villages, there is neither time, will, nor ability to carry out a meaningful postmortem to establish the real cause of death. Almost every day, a person I know loses a family member. Most WhatsApp groups that I am on are now filled with RIP messages. I keep wondering how many pass-on that are neither well known nor connected to anyone I know. God have mercy.
But there are also incredible stories of beating COVID19, including my own. You must give it to our healthcare workers who are on the frontline battling this disease. They spend countless hours, working under the toughest of circumstances, to treat and restore health to those who have had the misfortune of falling very sick. Definitely, they could do much more if they were better facilitated and motivated. They lack even the most basic and yet essential things such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This coupled with working under so much stress given their small numbers compared to patients potends disaster. In fact many have contracted the virus and several have passed on.
The gist of this short piece is not anything else, but to remind us citizens to take our role more seriously. From the time the People Power Movement started, our message has been to awaken every citizen to get interested in how his or her country is governed. We have reminded the nation that politics is too serious a matter to be left to a small clique of politicians. We have shouted our voices hoarse reminding each one that politics determines how you are born, how you live and many times how you die. We have called on citizens to concentrate on the idea of the common good as opposed to personal good.
Thankfully, most citizens, especially the common people of Uganda have taken this message seriously and done everything within their power to change things here. Many have been battered for doing so.
Unfortunately, there is a class of people who remained adamant and did not find sense in this message. Dr. Kizza Besigye has been very critical of that group of people called the elite, and he is justified in his criticism.
In most cases, the Ugandan elite behave as if nothing wrong is happening in the country. Thousands of citizens are abducted over political reasons — they are quiet. The courts are turned into a laughing stock — they are quiet. Every day, we have a breaking news story of theft of public funds in billions — they are quiet. Suspects have appeared in courts after months of illegal detention, with severe torture marks — they are quiet. For many years, activists have spoken about the rot and joke that our education system and healthcare have been turned into — they are quiet. Agriculture? Even worse!
Their sin has been mostly one — majority have chosen the illusion of personal comfort and placed it ahead of the common good. What this pandemic is teaching us is that it was a very big sin.
As long as they could afford to buy a car and have their AC on, they didn’t care a minute what was happening on the outside. As long as they could afford to take their kids to A-class private schools (or better still, international schools), they didn’t care when we called for education reform. As long as they had the privilege of health insurance with access to several private facilities, they didn’t care what was going on at Mulago, Kiruddu or Gulu Regional Referral Hospital. As long as they could return to fortified houses every evening surrounded by tall walls, they didn’t care about the state of insecurity all around. There was no one talking about the common good.
I have written here and elsewhere that knowingly or unknowingly, there has been a lot of complicity in the fraud that goes on in our country. For several decades now, those who rule over us have slept comfortably knowing that the elite are fully co-opted. The system allowed them to feed off the crumbs of corruption and inefficiency, and many felt a false sense of safety.
What the COVID19 crisis has done is expose the miscalculation. I have read countless stories of friends whose relatives’ deaths were completely avoidable. There was either no ambulance to rush them to hospital, or the hospital had no oxygen, or the hospital was simply far away! In some cases, family members have been asked to pay millions before their patients are attended to, and the patients have ended up dying. Many of us read that story of a doctor whose colleague passed on because there was no ICU facility in the northern region and so the patient had to be driven to Kampala! The second wave of the virus is ravaging the downtrodden as it is ravaging the affluent. Many have had to seek better care in Kenya and other neighbouring countries. Mind you, in those countries as it is elsewhere, they will most likely be attended to by a Ugandan trained doctor who ran away from here to seek greener pastures in a country next-door!
In his most recent speech, Gen. Museveni indicated that the whole country has only 218 ICU beds. Yes, two hundred and eighteen, countrymen and women!
We have an acute shortage of healthcare professionals, and an abundance of military and other security officers of all shades and names! We have no oxygen in hospitals, but we never run out of teargas and pink water to be sprayed on citizens fighting for better healthcare. We have no ambulances, but we have brand new police and military vehicles everywhere, and those mambas which roam our streets everytime the system smells trouble from those who are demanding for better. We have fighter jets which only come out on the ceremonial swearing-in every five years, but we probably have no single air ambulance in the country! If it is there, it is a reserve of the washed! Instead of paying health workers better, the regime has paid off artistes to sing it praises and bought off political opponents to cross over in ridiculous fashion. Several socialites have been in the press demanding that the ‘government of Uganda’ pays them more money after what they got during campaigns ran out! For some reason, this has been normalised and we have allowed it to go on. Instead of building modern hospitals, they are busy building more prisons. You will not hear them boast of the big numbers of patients that can be accommodated in hospitals, but you will hear them speak in praise of their capacity to imprison thousands of citizens at any given time!
The regime and those who speak for it have been saying that we should not tag the present crisis to poor governance since, in any case, people died even in the developed countries. This is not only misleading but also escapist. While some of those countries were “surprised” about a virus that wasn’t well known, the regime here has had over a year to prepare and plan for the second wave but it hasn’t done so. While those countries built resilient health systems long before the pandemic breached their borders, the regime here focused on keeping itself in power than investing in health care. Besides their health care system, those countries invested in national social support systems and ensured that there is equitable, corruption-free access to them by all citizens affected by the pandemic. All we’ve seen in Uganda is corruption and false promises! Gen. Museveni who has lashed out mercilessly at foreigners and called them idiots, is now yet again blaming them for not giving us vaccines! Believe you me, if protests were to break out in all districts of Uganda, you would be amazed at how fast teargas cannisters, pepper-spray and other such things would get there without delay. Not the vaccines! Trillions were borrowed or donated to deal with the pandemic last year but up to now, we have 218 ICU beds. If the numbers we have are stretching us to these extents, weep for the nation if they were to increase. God help us that we don’t reach even a quarter of infections as were in countries like Italy, Spain or Brazil.
I submit that by being complacent and complicit in everything that has gone wrong, there is a lot of blame to shoulder by those who should know better. Next time, we should think more about this animal called the common good! It may sound cliche, but the saying has come true before our very eyes: No one is safe until all of us are safe. No one is free, until all of us are free.