Africa: If You Don't Die of Lockdown Obesity, Toxic Fumes Will Get You


When Covid-19 struck the world a year and a half ago, Uganda was such an early responder that by the end of March 2020, it had declared a major lockdown that brought virtually all modern forms of locomotion to a standstill. Work was suspended except that which was categorised as "essential" - mostly health, security, farming, and utilities. Everybody else had to stay home.

As we were looking at the new highly infectious coronavirus, we took the attention off the non-communicable diseases that were getting enhanced by the lockdown. When people are not active and are not allowed to move about, their main activity becomes eating. And when they eat without burning the calories, they gain weight and become obese.

As if creeping obesity was not bad enough, lack of something to do led them into drinking at home. Bars are the most suspected places for spreading a respiratory infectious disease and were firmly closed by presidential order. They remain closed to this day. So drinking at home became the norm. It was now double jeopardy.

On the one hand, you are growing fat with its attendant health issues, which are already categorised as comorbidities in pandemic language, and on the other, you are becoming an alcoholic. Besides inciting abnormal behaviour when taken in excess, alcohol also causes health problems, some related to the liver.

As the double-barrelled attack by food and alcohol started weighing down on our Kampala people, the third tragedy struck. And this came not as a direct health issue but a terribly social one: child pregnancy. Not long after the lockdown was declared and schools got shut, many families painfully discovered that one of the key functions of going to school is to not become pregnant. Besides inciting abnormal behaviour when taken in excess, alcohol also causes health problems, some related to the liver.

But getting pregnant at 14 is not the worst for an confused Form Two student: What do you do when the father is the father? The things that idleness combined with alcohol can do! It isn't any better when the father is the brother. In fact, the teenage fathers of their sisters' babies get as traumatised as the mothers and the (grand)parents.

To avoid such unspeakable consequences of redundancy and alcohol, many townspeople did the sensible, advisable thing and started vigorous physical exercise. In the countryside, you pick a hoe and go digging. In town, you get jogging shoes and start running. But then gyms or health clubs remain as banned as bars. So the place to run is the road. That is how Kampala got its army of joggers, and the fourth quagmire was born.

Jogging was banned during the first lockdown - and the President went on national TV to demonstrate to people how to exercise from inside their houses. Incidentally, although jogging was banned then, the air was very clean and inviting for runners, as there were no vehicles either to knock you dead or to choke you with smoke. This time, under the second wave, every old pick-up truck and lorry and an inexplicable number of "non-essential" private cars are on the road, pumping all manner of exhausts in the air.

And nobody is restraining the joggers. So, thousands are out there on the road in the morning and early evening, running like their life depends on it. It should but, unfortunately, it is also endangering them. Kampala is one of the world's most polluted cities and its air dispatches tens of thousands of Ugandans who inhale it to their graves every year, far more than those killed by the Covid-19, which caused the quagmire. Imagine the huge amounts you inhale while exerting physically!

This is one major oversight in this year's lockdown. Health officials should have given Kampala folk some basic information that many of them don't have. In particular, there are times of day in Kampala which medics seriously joke that you shouldn't breathe! These are between 0900hrs and 1200hrs, and from 2100hrs to midnight.

At these times, the air near the ground is most polluted. In the first period, the morning traffic rush is ending, and the invisible particles in the air are settling where the people are. In the second period, the same is happening. In the cool night air, you are inhaling more poison than your body can cope with.

Since you cannot stop breathing for three hours, the least you can do is to be indoors. There is now no danger running on the road at 2100hrs, since the curfew starts at 1900hrs. So, unfortunately, most people who run hit the road in the dangerous first period. It seems Covid-19 sent the Non-Communicable Diseases Department on leave!

The author is a Kampala-based journalist.

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