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How Ugandans are coping with COVID-19 lockdown

Ever since Uganda registered its first case of the novel coronavirus, there were warnings such as “stay at home”, “wash your hands” and “cancel social gatherings of more than 10 people”, which were largely accepted by many Ugandans.

But the recent nationwide lockdown imposed by the government has created anxiety among a people known to be freewheeling and defiant of authority. For the first time in decades, Kampala streets are clear of vehicle and human traffic as Ugandans cannot walk, shop, socialise or even congregate for prayer without encumbrance. 

The majority of Ugandans are now staying at home following President Museveni’s two-week nationwide lockdown order that, according to him, aims to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The unprecedented lockdown took effect on March 30, devastating life nationwide but especially in the capital Kampala, which is known in the region as East Africa’s Entertainment Capital.

Even the few businesses that are allowed to operate as the pandemic rages, such as food stalls, financial institutions and healthcare services providers, are not allowed to go beyond 7:00 PM. Life is shut down between this time and 6:30 AM — with all kinds of movements prohibited.

“If people were not behaving carelessly, we wouldn’t have spread the virus. Since we are not sure, we should not take risks,” Mr Museveni said on March 31 after his country registered 44 cases of the novel coronavirus.

The curfew, Museveni said, was one of the ways of mitigating misdemeanour as criminals take advantage of the situation. But the majority of Ugandans have not seen it fit to impose such stringent measures and are agitated by the fact that they have to cede their basic rights to the government in the name of fighting coronavirus.

With the country’s economy in ruins and many people struggling to pay their bills, it’s clear that Ugandans are in no position to cope with the current lockdown, especially if it’s to be extended for more than two weeks.

Although the government has promised to give food aid to needy people, their plight highlights the dangers posed by the lockdown — that it is most likely to worsen hunger and poverty in the country.

Most Ugandans think the new rules will only serve to “kill” more people due to the resultant hunger as most of them are low income, hand-to-mouth earners who have now been rendered redundant.

Don Mugabi Anthony, a Ugandan self-styled philanthropist based in Turkey, piqued Ugandans’ curiosity when he posted on his Facebook wall that his efforts to extend a helping hand to starving Ugandans were thwarted by the government’s move to put the entire country on total lockdown.

He said: “I know it’s on a sad note that at the moment the country is in a miserable state because of the #Pendamic_Covid19. Though I’m not in the country, I had directed my team in Uganda to supply food and other necessities in the areas of Kampala City, Mukono, Jinja and Iganga. But due to the measures put in place by the government, my team couldn’t make it.”

His post saw a myriad people posting their mobile phone numbers in the comments section asking him to send them the assistance through mobile money, evidence that many people are already grappling with lack of necessities such as food.

Defiance in Kampala suburbs

The socio-economic dangers posed by the lockdown are highlighted by Ugandans’ current defiance. Odongo, a resident of Bweyogerere on the outskirts of Kampala, said in a Facebook post: “In my ghetto, everyone is outside. Shops are open and mobile money dealers are in terrific business.”

And it’s the same story in most areas where security personnel have not been deployed to ensure that Museveni’s directive is obeyed. In most Kampala suburbs, it’s almost business as usual, with many shops and other businesses seen operating as if the owners have not heard of the president’s directive.

“Where I am, boda bodas (motorcycle-taxis) are carrying people, private vehicles are moving, and just a few seconds ago I saw a boda boda carrying two police officers,” said Richard Asiimwe, without revealing his location.

But it’s a different story in the city centre, where those that have flouted Museveni’s directive have faced the wrath of the police. As Gail Walter notes, “Today there was violence in Kampala with widespread beating and canings by the police/military, against Ugandans using transportation. It will likely be worse tomorrow. I think we may have entered martial law… or very close to it.” 

Politically motivated lockdown?

It’s understandable why Ugandans are reluctant to comply with Museveni’s new rules. Many think that the president’s orders are politically motivated and that his government is using the coronavirus excuse to clamp down on the opposition.

By April 1, only 44 coronavirus cases had been reported in the country, with no single death. And almost all of the cases were imported, meaning there was no local transmission or, even if the virus was being locally transmitted, it wasn’t worth writing home about.

“Let’s pray. These are indeed rough times and hurtful moments. My heart is so heavy right now. Even though some of these directives may be for a good cause, I think they are politically motivated,” said Leonard Chemtai, another Kampala resident.

And yet politics, as would have been expected, is largely at play. In his latest address to the nation, the president strongly warned socialites and politicians against distributing food to needy Ugandans, labelling the act as “cheap popularity” — albeit tongue-in-cheek.

He said: “I call upon the different politicians who are busy making distributions of rations to our people… put aside your love for popularity and politics and avoid calling people to gather in the name of giving them food. If you genuinely have a contribution to make, get in touch with the national task force that is in charge and we shall be grateful.

“In return, you can as well gain your popularity, we shall record your name and give you all the publicity you want, even if you want to sleep on TV. Most importantly, God will recognise and reward you.”

As aways, leading opposition politicians were quick to hit back at Museveni. “I think that Mr Museveni is mismanaging his political embarrassment. He thinks that people trying to fill the gaping holes in what would be State (public) deliverables are undermining his power. Yet, it’s clear that he’s running a bankrupt and dysfunctional State,” said Forum for Democratic Change’s Dr Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s strongest opponent for the last two decades.

“Surely, Ugandans know who leads in shamelessly giving political handouts (on camera) using taxpayers’ money,” Dr Besigye added.