Uganda: Difficult Time for Museveni As Lethal Covid Strain Takes Toll On Ugandans

Covid-19 vaccine

The past one week has been tough for Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni even after putting the country on lockdown in the face of an unprecedented increase in Covid-19 infections and deaths.

While some media say the infection rate could have hit a triple-digit mark, the president last week pegged it at 17 percent.

What is worrying health officials and the president, however, is the deadly Delta strain, initially from India, which cuts across generations and social strata.

The president's beloved Bazukulu are among those admitted to various institutions. But it has not spared the high and mighty. There have been rumours that some "prominent" people in government could have contracted the virus.

This week, parliamentary staff and legislators totalling at least 200 were reported to have been infected with the coronavirus and, midweek, House Speaker Jacob Oulanyah was reported to have been flown out to seek treatment in a foreign country. But parliament's communications department dismissed the sickness "rumours," insisting that the Speaker had taken time off to visit his family in the UK.

UK flight ban

But the news of his flight coincided with the banning by the UK of travellers from Uganda. London on Thursday added Uganda on the Red List, attributing the decision to a review of the latest scientific evidence pertaining to the risk of community transmission of Covid-19 variants.

"Only British nationals, Irish nationals and third-country nationals with residence rights in the UK who have departed from or transited Uganda within 10 days prior to their arrival in the UK will be required to quarantine for 10 days in a government approved facility," the statement said.

It was not clear by press time if the Speaker had entered the UK.

Such is the impact of the pandemic on government operations that some ministries continue to lack ministers as they are among 17 appointees who could not be sworn in on June 21 because they self-isolated after contact with suspected Covid patients. Former Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, who missed the Monday event, was sworn in as the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for EAC Affairs on Friday at State House Nakasero.

But, as Museveni continues to assemble the administration for his sixth term - which has included a shuffle in the military in which he promoted his former Aide de Camp Wilson Mbadi to general and named him the Chief of Defence Forces and elevated his son Lt-Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who had been serving as the head of the Special Forces Command, to the coveted position of Commander of Land Forces - the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc.

Healthcare services are overwhelmed amid a shortage of oxygen supply and admission space in government hospitals.

The country's cumulative cases by Friday had risen to 75,000, with more than 20,000 of these reported in the past one month. This week alone, the country recorded 204 deaths, 49 of which were announced on Friday.

Museveni declared June 25 a public holiday, designating the day as a national prayer day over a raging pandemic.

Speaking during the event, President Museveni told Ugandans: "Avoiding sickness is provided for in the Bible but people don't listen. They don't do their mandate because God gave them intelligence which is superior to the cows."

Health authorities say that the rate at which the virus is spreading at the community level is difficult to contain it even with the current lockdown. Although Kampala and Wakiso are the epicentres, the Health ministry has reported cases across the country, with rural areas that did not get affected by the first wave now registering cases and deaths.

With the high number of new infections and no space in public hospitals, poor Ugandans who catch the virus but cannot afford the high rates at private hospitals have opted for home care with little monitoring from health professionals.

In the past week, the Health ministry has been grappling with mass testing, creating space at regional referral hospitals and acquiring oxygen cylinders whose absence has created an oxygen shortage and caused loss of lives.

Rapid diagnostic tests

According to the ministry's spokesperson Emmanuel Ainebyona, rapid diagnostic tests were by Wednesday introduced at government health centres to increase the rate of testing and reduce the time taken to receive results -- which has been 24 hours.

On increasing capacity of the hospitals, Ainebyona said that tents that have been put up in the compounds of the country's regional referral hospitals and are being fitted with beds and that the ministry was recruiting about 1,000 medical workers to man them across the country.

"The issue of oxygen is not as bad as it has been depicted recently," he said. "Oxygen is available but what we have been lacking are the cylinders for transportation. For oxygen production, we have already installed a new oxygen plant at Mulago Hospital."

With support from the Global Fund, Uganda is procuring 3,800 oxygen cylinders to help reduce the crisis. Those who can afford it are hoarding oxygen cylinders at home and the government came out strongly to discourage the practice.

Status of oxygen supply

Dr Henry Mwebesa, director-general of Health Services, said that oxygen is a Class A medical supply required to be monitored and regulated by trained health workers upon proper prescription by qualified medical personnel. He said that its administration in homes by non-professionals had resulted in the deterioration of some patients.

Uganda is becoming a pariah in the region and beyond. A week ago, Tanzanian authorities cited the crisis in cautioning citizens to beware of a third wave.

The United Arab Emirates banned direct flights between the two countries and Rwanda's national carrier RwandAir paused flights to Entebbe. The new wave is billed to leave the battered economy on its knees.

On June 14, the designated Minister of State for Planning Amos Lugolobi announced measures to stimulate economic recovery by boosting business activity through financing private sector growth as well as investment promotion, promoting agro-industrialisation and establishment of infrastructure for economic growth and development including transport infrastructure and power infrastructure and digital transformation. He also indicated that they were in discussions with the IMF for a $30 million loan to boost its recovery plan.

With the lockdown, the small traders have been run aground. With no easy access to credit, their recovery will take a long time, if at all.

These are the issues that are causing the president sleepless nights.

While government officials blame citizens' laxity in taking precautions, citizens also criticise the government for lowering its guard and letting in new lethal variants and improperly spending Covid-19 relief cash meant to cushion and prepare the health sector for the second wave.

"It has become convenient for the government to blame citizens in Uganda for the surge of covid-19. No mention of state weaknesses at all. If the state cannot accept its faults and work on them we are doomed," policy analyst Mwambustya Ndebesa said.

On June 18, President Museveni instituted a 42-day lockdown, which banned public transport, schools, public gatherings and non-essential. Sources at the Covid-19 National taskforce said that restrictions will only be lifted if death rate goes down, recovery rate up, new infections reduce, compliance levels in observing health protocols improve and when at least 4 million people will have been vaccinated in Kampala.

The country will next week resume mass vaccination in Kampala and other areas after the delivery of 175,000 new doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the Covax facility after its first batch of 964,000 doses got used up.

Uganda has so far vaccinated 841,629 people. Among these, at least 322,000 are due for the second dose and only 57,797 had received both doses by June 18.

The country intends to vaccinate 21.9 million people to achieve herd immunity.

According to Ms Catherine Ntabadde, the UNICEF spokesperson in Uganda, the agency, already armed with an $11 million war chest from the government, is searching for a supplier of more doses from different makers.

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