COVID-19 Update

WASWA BALUNYWA: The virus is back with vengeance

Uganda did extremely well in managing the Coronavirus, named COVID-19 until recently. When the country was locked down in March 2020, there was a lot of fear among Ugandans because the virus was reported to kill within 14 days when not detected and treated.

The virus had been declared a pandemic in January 2020 by the World Health Organization. It is reported to have originated in China. It had started killing people everywhere in the world, so lockdowns were supposed to slow and deter infection as other solutions were found.

The numbers of deaths reported in Uganda a year later were very small, less than 400 and the number of people who were infected were also relatively small, less than 45,000 people. These were small compared to the figures that we were seeing in the developed countries, where numbers of deaths, in some countries were more than 4,000 per day!

Today, reports indicate that over a 173 million people were infected, and 3.73 million have died of COVID-19 world-wide. It was with God’s grace, I believe, that Uganda and indeed many African countries did not get the serious challenge that was seen in developed countries. The fact that the health system in Africa is poor, the people themselves are poor, and the onslaught of the virus as it did in those other countries would have been devastating until now.

Thanks to President Museveni who took leadership in managing the crisis. The country has been in a lockdown which, has never been lifted fully more than a year later on! Life has been returning to normal as many Ugandans, have now been walking around without masks, shaking hands and going about their work freely. There are some areas where the lockdown has never been lifted, I guess this includes bars, and in some areas, there has been limitations for instance, in prayer places and indeed the general assembly of people.

We had a general election in January this year. Campaigns began several months before and people interacted carelessly despite the presence of COVID-19. But the number of infections and deaths continued to be low. The interaction of people during the election was extremely high. You could actually think that people simply neglected the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), which had been recommended by the Ministry of Health to Ugandans. We expected to see many new infections, somehow it didnt come to pass

The infections that came into the country appeared to have come either through the heavy Lorry drivers who came through the various borders into the country or a few people who came into the country through air travel. They found a country that was alert, ready and locked down. I believe that this could have been the reason why this infection rate was low. Both these were controlled. The spread of course, came from people interacting with others especially in heavily populated places like burials and other functions. But indeed, the country did not experience that huge crisis that was expected which was taking place in the developed countries. We were alert and aware that we did not have the medical facilities to treat people if they fell sick in large numbers. The government opened up Namboole Stadium to prepare for that crisis which never took place until now!

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In the last 10 days, the virus is back, with vengeance! At Makerere University Business School, we have received reports from our students that many were not feeling well and many had signs of Covid-19. We were alarmed, contacting the Government officials were able to get a testing centre. In the one day testing 45, students 30% of them were found positive! This is very alarming, and this means that there need for the country to take care. This is a war footing! What next. How should we manage this if we are to win? That is, among 45 people, 15 of them are positive! This is huge. This definitely is an indicator of what the situation is in urban areas and the fact that the country cannot manage to hospitalize that kind of numbers.

Today, it is reported that most of the hospitals in town are full to capacity and the numbers are due to Coronavirus. The Intensive Care Units (ICUs), in hospitals are few and the actual capacity of these ICUs is also limited. The ventilators, which are used to support breathing for serious Coronavirus patients are also limited in number. All these are fully utilized. This is the tragedy that we are to face if the pandemic is not arrested at this early stage. The situation will get worse.

Lockdowns are intended to check and delay infections and also to enable people be more careful so as to avoid being infected. But the lockdowns have a dark side. They ruin an economy. They make poor people poorer if they don’t work. People must work to earn an income and eat. Many in urban areas will starve if they don’t work. Indeed, it is reported that in the last lockdown, some people starved.

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Lockdowns delay infection but do not stop it. A virus will finally be everywhere. Lockdown world-wide worked for some time but have negative long-term effects. When you hear stories of what was happening in other countries, despite having the masks and washing their hands, social distancing, the reports of infections in the developed countries has been very high. It appears this now is replicating itself in this country. It is serious.

The current challenge

What is the cause of this current surge? Why appear now? What has the country not done? Where is the virus coming from? Is it possible that the virus has been lying low?
I don’t think the virus has been lying low. If the virus matures and possibly kills in 14 days, then the virus that we had in the early stages of the pandemic up to possibly March or April this year is not the virus that we are experiencing right now. This appears like what happened in India. After a Lull, the virus came back with vengeance. It is possible we had earlier developed herd immunity, a natural phenomenon under such conditions. But this is a different type of virus. However, is it’s pointless asking where the virus is coming from. The most important point is;
• How we keep Ugandan safe?
• How do we keep our family members safe?
• How do we keep our friends, students teachers, and all others safe and
• How do we even keep all our medical workers safe?
• How do we continue with the economic activities in the country to avoid more people slipping into poverty?
• How do we stop these unwanted deaths?
• How do we keep our country safe?

These are the questions that somebody needs to answer. Uganda has a task force, which is knowledgeable in the virus issues, which advises H.E. the President. The President, finally takes the decision based on the advice. He directs Ugandans what needs to be done. It has been rumored that the President had rejected another full lockdown especially on economic grounds. Finally, the President spoke on Sunday June 6. He did not lockdown the economy. He requested that education institutions close for six weeks and restricted inter district travel along with limits on gatherings.

Juma Waswa Balunywa is a scholar in management, leadership and entrepreneurship. He is also an academic administrator, who serves as the Principal of Makerere University Business School, a public institution of higher education in Uganda.

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