Uganda: This Happens When You Call Toll-Free Lines

Okay, you wake up feeling tacky. Your throat hurts; maybe you have a cough. You are definitely anxious. What should you do? Can you get tested to rule out the novel coronavirus?

Official advice is; if you feel sick, call these toll-free ministry of Health lines -0800100066 and 0800203033. This is what happens when you call for help.

The Observer team called the first toll-free number 0800100066 on Monday, March 23 at 2:30 pm using an Airtel cell-phone line. The team was put on hold for three minutes. The voice message on the other end of the line said; "Welcome to the ministry of Health helpline. Please hold the line while we connect you to the nearest person for assistance... "

The connection didn't happen. The team held onto the line for three minutes. All the caller could hear was music streaming in from the other end of the line. Frustrated, the caller finally hung up.

The team tried the second number 0800203033 at 2:35 pm. The call went through and was picked by a gentleman who identified himself as a ministry of Health employee.

"Hullo, welcome to the ministry of Health call helpline. May I know your name and where you are calling from," the ministry official said.

"Why are you calling?" he asked.

The caller said he had flu, a sore throat, aches and pains, a bad cold, sneezing and high temperature.

"Have you travelled out of the country in the recent two or three weeks?" the official asked.

"No... " the caller said.

"Is there anyone close to you, a fellow worker or relative who travelled out of the country two or three weeks back and perhaps you have been in contact with them?" he asked.

"No... " came the caller's answer.

"The signs you are having may just be for common flu or a cold. So, I advise you to go to a nearby doctor and get medical attention," he said.

But the caller insisted on being screened for Covid-19.

"No, there's no need; first go and see a doctor and give me your contact number so that I can follow you up... " the official said and the call ended.

He, however, never called back on Monday and Tuesday. Both toll-free numbers; 0800100066 and 0800203033 cannot be reached using the MTN service network. The team tried on Monday and Tuesday and failed to get through.

On Tuesday, March 24 at 10:25 am, the team tried calling both numbers again. The team called 0800100066 three times using an Airtel line but on three occasions it was busy.

Surprisingly, the 0800203033 line, which was picked on Monday by the ministry official, was off this time round. Both toll-free numbers were still unreachable using the MTN service network on Tuesday.

Done with the calling, the team then decided to heed the ministry official's advice and sampled out a couple clinics to see if they could help screen for Covid-19.

Interviewed on Monday for this story, Dr Querine Namugerwa of Mengo Doctor's Clinic, said local health facilities do not have test kits for Covid-19. She said all they can do is teach people how to avoid catching and spreading the virus.

"We do not have testing kits, which can detect the coronavirus. The ministry of Health has only directed us to also call their toll-free helplines in case we receive any patient with Covid-19 signs and symptoms and they send a medical team to help," she said, adding that they are still leaning on the risk factors and preventive measures put in place by the ministry.

At Family Medical Centre in Kazinga, Bweyogerere, Fahad Mutyaba, a clinician, said on Tuesday, "Ever since the first attack, we have received very many false alarms. People have been coming here with fevers claiming they have coronavirus disease. But as medical professionals, we deal with these cases to the best of our abilities."

"We have not gotten any contact with the ministry and our attempt to reach them has fallen on deaf ears," he said.

"The biggest concern is the fact that we do not have actual instructions apart from the things we read and see on the internet. We have tried to call the ministry officials to ask for testing kits in vain. The numbers do not go through," Brian Mawejje, a lab technician at the same clinic, said.

"Unique care needs to be taken when dealing with the samples, those swabs have to be transported in a specific manner and sadly for some of us, we do not have the equipment; so, our hands are tied," Mawejje added.

At Kireku Medical Centre, a government facility, in Bweyogerere, many medics were found busy handling the commonplace malaria and common colds. Coronavirus seemed to be the furthest thing on their minds. Interviewed, a nurse said they haven't received any tailor-made training for treating Covid-19.

All local clinics are supposed to refer coronavirus cases to the ministry. So far, all screenings for Covid-19 is done by the Uganda Virus Research Institute.

The recent confirmation of eight new cases of coronavirus bringing the tally to nine, took the shine off what had hitherto seemed like a well-knit Ugandan operation against the fast global spread of the virus.

All the new cases involve Ugandan nationals who recently travelled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and were allowed to walk through the immigration points at Entebbe International Airport and mingle with the local population.

What if I think I'm infected (US context)?

There's a good chance it's not Covid-19. You may have the flu, especially if you have aches and pains, or a bad cold.

"A runny nose and itchy eyes -- that's not a problem," said Gregory Poland, an infectious disease expert at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

But a high fever, a persistent cough -- or signs of respiratory distress such as shortness of breath -- means you could have the disease caused by the virus. For doctors trying to make diagnoses, context is key, Poland said. "Am I looking at a 12-year-old kid from a little town in Kansas with no cases or an 80-year-old with a chronic disease in New York City who just got off a cruise ship (with Coronavirus infections)?"

Some primary care doctors are moving to administer tests for the coronavirus in their offices, but many are reluctant because it carries risks to their patients and themselves. The nose-and-throat swabs can cause patients to cough, potentially infecting the doctors collecting the specimen. The physicians should wear protective equipment, but some practices don't have it.

For now, "the vast majority of doctors I have spoken to do not have the capacity to do tests on individuals," said Gary LeRoy, a family physician in Dayton, Ohio, and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. The organization recently sent Congress a letter complaining their members don't have basic critical information on issues such as how and when to test their patients and how to deal with a shortage of face masks and gowns.

So what if I think I might be infected?

Consult with your primary care doctor, if you have one. Don't go to the doctor's office without calling ahead. The coronavirus is highly contagious, and doctors want to protect themselves and their other patients from infection.

"We cannot have Covid in the office," said one Washington-area primary care physician who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect patients' privacy. "Our job is to keep people out of the hospital!" The doctor noted that her waiting room is frequently full of older patients with heart disease, cancer and other conditions for whom the coronavirus could be fatal.

Your doctor will assess your symptoms by phone, get your travel history and listen to your concerns. If the doctor suspects the coronavirus but your symptoms are mild, you'll likely be advised to self-quarantine at home.

The majority of cases are relatively mild, though the disease is more dangerous for older people with underlying medical conditions and people of any age with compromised immune systems. If you are around others, wear a face mask. Avoid sharing personal items, like dishes, and frequently clean countertops, tables and other surfaces.

There is no treatment for Covid-19 -- there's nothing like Tamiflu for the flu, for example.


The East African Community through its Secretariat is in the process of deploying mobile laboratories and coronavirus test kits to all East African Community partner states of Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Burundi.

Each partner state will receive a four- wheel-drive vehicle fitted with laboratory and ICT equipment as well as all necessary consumables for a fully functional laboratory with the capacity to conduct tests for Ebola and coronavirus in addition to other pathogens.

The EAC Secretariat has also put in place a Regional Coordination Committee (RCC) with risk communication and community enlargement, policy and guidelines, finance and logistics and data and statistics subcommittees to oversee the regional Covid-19 response.

The RCC has already set in motion a number of activities to secure the EAC organs and institutions and support the partner states in battling the virus.

The East African Community has also suspended all its meetings for all organs, institutions and project implementation units until further notice. It also suspended all rental and use of EAC facilities.

"Organizers of meetings will use video conferencing or any other available virtual facilities as much as possible," said Ambassador Mufumukeko, adding that they have restricted travels among its staff and encouraged them to work from home.

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