Uganda's U-Turn On Public Transport Vaccination Mandate

At Nizamiye Hospital in Abuja, a nurse administers a second COVID-19 dose to Martin Atojoko,“I know the importance of the vaccine and have been advocating that everyone around me receive the jab if they get the opportunity to do so."

Authorities in Uganda have reversed their decision to demand proof of vaccination against COVID-19 on public transport. The directive attracted great ire among bus and taxi operators, as the country looked set to reopen.

On the streets of Kampala, the public looks eager to get back to the life as they knew it: the capital's taxi ranks and bus stations are bustling with activity. But it is exactly in these busy transportation hubs that COVID-19 can be passed on easily.

With this in mind, the government had looked at the transport sector as one of the key industries to uphold certain COVID-19 restrictions, demanding all passengers to produce vaccination certificates or at least a valid negative test results.

President Yoweri Museveni's announcement to that end on New Year's Eve attracted great criticism, as drivers and conductors vowed to defy the order, saying that they would not block unvaccinated passengers from boarding their vehicles. And the public weren't far behind in rejecting the effective vaccine mandate, with less than 20% of the Ugandan public having received at least a first vaccination dose by late December.

Businesswoman Diana Birungi told DW in Kampala that reviving the Ugandan economy should be the government's first priority: "As a passenger, when you stop us from moving the economy is dead."

Scientific consensus also against directive

Thus, the government had to reverse much of this directive less than a week later. Transport and works minister General Katumba Wamala insisted, however, that operators will still be required to be vaccinated before they can transport passengers.

And now, even scientists are joining the ranks of those who are cautioning against introducing laws that could be detrimental to socio-economic activities: A group of Ugandan researchers advised the government to abandon the directive, saying it was not practical or easy to enforce considering the vaccination shortage in the country.

They noted that over-reliance on vaccination may send the wrong signal. Uganda has thus far managed to procure 32 million vaccine doses, which could inoculate over half the country's population; however, the COVID-19 omicron variant has meanwhile proven that new strands and variants can potentially bypass vaccine protection.

Dr Misaki Wanyengera, the head of the government's scientific advisory committee, stressed that COVID vaccines are "not designed to prevent primary infection."

"And this has been very difficult for people to understand: the essence of vaccination in COVID is to reduce the risk for severe disease," he told DW, adding that in addition to vaccines, "secondary measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19" will also continue to be needed.

Vaccination only 'secondary' line of protection

Wanyengera stressed the importance of social distancing, proper mask-wearing and hand hygiene, stressing that "vaccines alone will not help. We need to be able to complement the vaccines with the standard operating procedures."

Dr. Francis Omaswa, head of the community engagement sub-committee of the National COVID-19 task force, recommended that Uganda and other African nations should also rather invest efforts into educating the public on how to prevent catching a COVID infection.

Uganda's Ministry of Health meanwhile has still come under fire for allegedly not doing enough to ensure that the vaccines reach all parts of the population. Long queues at vaccination centers have meant that many of the eligible candidates and even priority groups for the vaccine don't get to have their turn -- including school teachers.

Public education under threat

As schools in Uganda are preparing to reopen fully for the first time in two years, teachers are among those who seem to fall through the cracks. Despite being a priority group, over 170,000 teachers in the country have not even received a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Ministry of Education; only about a third of teachers in Uganda have been fully inoculated.

At the same time, the ministry says that unvaccinated teaches will not be allowed to set foot in the schools. Parents and students alike are worried that if unvaccinated teachers are blocked teaching because of their vaccination status, a miseducation pandemic could follow COVID.

There are also mounting fears that any attempt to enforce hard restrictions with teachers and other public sector workers will only compel some to resort to obtaining fake vaccination cards and test certificates. The fraudulent documents are virtually indistinguishable from real vaccine certificates.

On the black market, such documents can reportedly be obtained for only $20.

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