Uganda: Will Museveni Change Covid-19 Exit Strategy?

4 December 2021

President Museveni has set next month, January 2022, as the date to fully open up the country's economy after nearly two years of restrictions and lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19.

The first case of the virus was first announced in the country in March 2020. But new developments surrounding the spread of Covid-19, including its new Omicron variant, now cast a shadow of doubt on the President's firm plan of reopening the economy.

Since the first case was announced, President Museveni has relied on scientific data to announce measures to curb the spread of the virus. But he has also acted otherwise on the same scientific facts when it comes to lifting restrictions, including the 7pm curfew now in force for nearly two years.

Across the country, schools remain closed, with more than 10.4 million learners in pre-primary, primary and secondary schools affected, according to Unicef. Uganda also holds the record for keeping schools closed longest since March 2020, when governments across the globe first applied measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus disease.

Amid this, the cost of essential commodities have registered a sharp increase as the prices of fuel soar.

Civil society, and government planners, including the Central Bank, have all warned of tough times ahead if sections of the economy remain shut over what the authorities say are measures to stop the spread of Covid19.

People are already struggling and those who have been rendered unemployed due to measures to check the pandemic have been largely left on their own in the absence of intervention policies to support the incomes of vulnerable groups.

Omicron variant

On Thursday, the Ministry of Health announced that the fast spreading Omicron variant, also feared to be more lethal, had not been detected within Uganda's borders. But scientists in South Africa where the latest variant was first reported have reported that it appears to be re-infecting people at a higher rate.

Nevertheless, the good news for Uganda is that in less than a month, the country is expected to have received a total of at least 32.6m vaccines doses. These should be able to target the 22m eligible persons with at least the first dose.

Four months after vaccines became widely available in the country, government says it "continues to prioritise Covid-19 vaccination as a strategic intervention to control the pandemic, including the effects posed by the new variants".

The numbers, however, tell a different story and unless some major intervention happens between now and January, the proposed opening of the economy might be in jeopardy.

Given the lack of enough vaccines and evident lack enthusiasm by government to push for more people to get vaccinated, just 1.2m Ugandans have been fully vaccinated. This is more than three months since the vaccines became widely available in the country.

Of the more than 17.1m vaccine doses already in the country, slightly more than 6.9m have been administered.

This means more than 10m vaccines doses are lying idle at the National Medical Stores (6.6m) and district stores.

Asked on what the country's plan is, the Health ministry spokesperson, Mr Emmanuel Ainebyona, told this newspaper to go by the "President's statements".

"Be informed that the schools will be opened in January and the rest of the economy will be opened in the same month," President Museveni said in a televised speech on October 28, insisting that vaccination is key to the reopening of the economy.

"By the end of December 2021, [at least] 12 million people should have been vaccinated," President Museveni predicted, but with less than three weeks to the end of the year, and given the current pace, this projection will likely not be met.

Vaccination drive

Going by the Health ministry's own reporting, the Accelerated Mass Covid-19 Vaccination Campaign (AMVC), is yet to have a massive impact on the uptake of the doses. The campaign has already covered Teso, Lango, Kigezi and Acholi sub-regions.

The campaign also covers churches, taxi parks, and markets, among other places.

Perhaps to signal the opening up of more sectors of the economy, government announced on Thursday that weekly markets in Soroti, Kampala, Kalungu, Kabale, Kumi, Tororo, Gulu, Nwoya and Yumbe districts that have been closed for months are to be opened.

"Even if you don't come out for vaccination, we will open the schools and the economy. If anything goes wrong, the moral responsibility is yours," President Museveni said.

Will Mr Museveni see through the opening of the country to business as usual or will he change his mind as he has sometimes done in this pandemic as the trend of the pandemic remains unpredictable?

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