By Edith Wandera
In the Kate Falawo Zone in Kampala’s Kawempe Division, a young woman had to endure a terrifying night with her dead roommate. Locked down and fearful of running into the marauding gangs of trigger-happy army patrols, she had watched helplessly as life slowly sapped out of her roommate during the night of 02 April. As her friend’s temperature soared, she desperately called all the public helplines to try and secure permission to transport the sick woman to a health facility.
None of the Resident City Commissioners for her area responded to the S.O.S. Even after daybreak on, 3 April, she was left stranded for hours with her friend’s corpse in the single room rental in one of the many poverty-stricken areas of Kampala.
The deceased was just the latest statistic on the growing list of Ugandans – including the pregnant and critically sick – who have fallen victim of President Museveni’s chaotic efforts to stop the Coronavirus pandemic from spreading beyond the four dozen active cases that had been confirmed by 03 April.
Yet if he needed anything to rouse him from his fantasyland, the Covid-19 crisis should be the perfect opportunity to jolt Museveni from any illusions about the competences of Uganda as a state he runs. As he tried to marshal a response to the crisis, it soon dawned on him that the state did not even have a functional ambulance service. Despite having nearly a 5000-strong fleet of vehicles, a good number of them high end 4X4’s, Uganda’s health ministry cannot count even 150 ambulances among them.
The country’s health system is completely broken. So much so that acts like one politician importing a 30-year old van from Japan and converting it into an ambulance, emblazoned with the donating politician’s portrait, are accepted. Even though the politician’s main motivation is maintaining voter loyalty.
Uganda descended into chaos within days of Museveni ordering a lockdown. Gangs of thugs masquerading as COVID-19 vigilantes took over poor neighborhoods, beating and stealing from helpless residents as police looked on. Returning citizens that were forced into quarantine quickly became a lucrative racket for civil servants, security officials and hotel owners.
They were ripping off people that were forced into ramshackle accommodations, forcing them to fork out US$ 1400 per head for the two-week quarantine period. Yet, it was said, the state had actually paid for the facilities. As privileged officials enjoyed show time posturing on national television and working out huge budgets for the Coronavirus response, unprotected workers were running away from patients.
A donation of protective gear by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma which arrived in the country has disappeared as if into thin air, as officials put in budgets for a response. Health Ministry sources that preferred anonymity to talk safely said big, NRM-connected officials within the Ministry are already making a killing selling Jack Ma’s donation underground.
For Museveni and his henchmen, the COVID-19 pandemic is just another opportunity to ‘eat’. On Tuesday, finance minister Matia Kasaija tabled a Ushs 302 billion request for “supplementary expenditure”. Legislators threw it out because it was conveniently scanty on detail.
instance the Health Ministry, which has put the cost of a single COVID-19 test at US$ 65, was seeking Ushs 82 billion without a breakdown of what the money was going to be used for. Even more inexplicably the Ministry of Defense was seeking Ushs 81.5 billion. Meanwhile the Prime minister’s office wanted 39 billion shillings “for emergency support for 1.5 million vulnerable people in Greater Kampala.”
Museveni’s orders have become a problem; most times not making sense even to himself. Security officers are not looking at the lockdown within the context of the law but rather in terms of Museveni the person. Hence a violator is not guilty of breaching the law but rather ‘disobeying the President.’
Yet Museveni is unbothered by all this and instead appears to be enjoying the show, turning up on TV every other day to give “further guidance” that have quickly descended into a farce. A salient feature of these live briefings, which look more like mini-cabinet meetings, is the lack of team effort and structured thought processes.
The president is throwing orders about with little input from his cabinet. For instance, his idea of putting his political representatives – the Resident District Commissioners or RDC’s – in charge of approving movement for emergency cases is not working. It only is adding to the chaos. Yet Museveni won’t relent.
On the other hand Museveni’s idea of health emergencies appears to be limited to snakebites and cardiac arrest. In the circumstances, a mother in labor whom anybody with two eyes should be able to see as being in labor; or an asthmatic in distress, cannot move from their residence to a hospital without a permit.
Also in a society that has long lost any memory of personal integrity, Museveni is telling residents to depend on commercial motorcycle riders to shop everyday necessities for them. A clip that has been circulating on social media shows one such “boda” man siphoning a good measure of rice from a bag before making the delivery.
What is clear is that the plight of ordinary Ugandans is far from Museveni’s mind.
If he ever thinks about them, it is how to beat them into further submission should the crisis deepen.
This is evident from his reliance on violent suppression, rather than a humanitarian response to the health scare.