Currently as of 4.4.20, 48 people in Uganda have tested positive for Covid-19. All these were already in quarantine or self-isolation having arrived at Entebbe airport from various parts of the globe in mid March. No Covid-19 related deaths have been registered. To the best of my knowledge, no tests have been done in the general public arena. While these low numbers may be a good sign, the fear of quarantine has led many recently-returned travellers to avoid it, even escape (as five people did last week – now jailed for their recklessness). This double-digit figure will probably rise as more people are tracked, tested, and quarantined. Although less than 2000 tests have been carried out country-wide, Uganda has an excellent track record in dealing with viral outbreaks and illnesses. However, Covid-19 is not Ebola; it is much more sinister because of the existence of asymptomatic cases. We have yet to see the virus in the community. And fingers crossed it will not reach that point, but we don’t really know. In a country where malaria is prevalent, doctors’ consultation fees are high, and pharmacies sell most drugs without prescription, at the first sign of a high temperature, most people will simply self-medicate for malaria and continue life as normal. I think that’s how Covid-19 could spread in Uganda, possibly because of those irresponsible persons who avoided quarantine.
At the beginning of all this dreadfulness in other places, even before Uganda’s President Museveni gave the lockdown and curfew orders six days ago, The Man and I were already staying home, only venturing out when necessary, and wearing masks and gloves. I thought of it as a kind of adventure: hunting and gathering in difficult circumstances. That feeling soon gave way to a mild frisson of terror, and I had a bit of a wobble when we were first locked down. The goal has now become staying alive in frightening circumstances.
Yesterday I was thinking about the words people I hear on the wireless use for this time of lockdown: quarantine, cocooning, sheltering, isolation, hibernating, staying safe … . When I think of an older person cocooning, I immediately think of them wrapped up in soft fluffy blankets on a comfy sofa with a fire lit. And sheltering? For me that conjures up holing up under a tarpaulin until the rain has stopped. But right now, whatever we call it, I am happy enough to be locked down for my own good, provided I have food for the canines (and ourselves, of course). As members of the privileged lot in this country who have phone banking and can order food online, we can survive well for the foreseeable future. Many are already suffering from lack of food and essential medicines.
But a kind of lethargy has overcome me; I get through each day fairly OK but doing a lot of nothing much. I’ve seen some people’s lockdown goals that are bulleted beyond ten items, all of them lofty pursuits like losing an unrealistic number of kilos, writing that novel, learning a new language or a musical instrument, even giving up alcohol! Pardon me, giving up alcohol? It’s one of the things getting me through to 6pm each day without losing it entirely. And so I haven’t done any of those things I thought I would a few weeks ago. I really wanted to master Clair de Lune but just haven’t got the mental oomph to get down to it. I wanted to continue reading Robert MacFarlane’s wonderful Underland, but it sits on the table accusingly, dust gathering on its cover, bookmark static. I’ve stopped looking at the news before bedtime and thankfully the bad dreams have stopped. But keeping up with the progress of this strange life form that blasts everything in its way is in some way compulsive.
And in Kampala, despite the lockdown, strange things are afoot. Three days ago I wrapped myself up and set out for the 1km walk to the nearest group of shops for amoxycillin and hand sanitizer as well as bananas and beef for the pooches. The light nearly left my eyes: it was business as usual in the trading centre market. All public transport, private transport, and motorbike “taxis” have been banned by presidential directive, but most of the motorbike taxis (bodas) I passed called me to jump on. Were they crazy? I hesitate to get on a boda at the best of times because they scare me; I grab the guy around the waist and hang on for dear life – they love it, of course. Everyone else just jumps on and starts checking their phones; some women even sit sideways like gentlewomen on horses in days of yore. On the main road into town, private cars with passengers (also forbidden) were also motoring along, and trucks were aplenty, all in all not terribly different from every other day – although I must admit it was easier to cross the road because the traffic wasn’t just so crazy!
In the food market, sellers jostled with each other for business. I bought my bananas and beef in jik time, all the while trying to back away from people who crowded around each stall. It was a nightmare. At the pharmacy, the staff were trying to enforce social distancing, but the peeps weren’t having it. I put on my best teacher voice and did a prima dona-type repetition of the presidential directive, but just got eye rolls and shoulder shrugs. Let me tell you, I legged it home like the clappers, abandoned my gutties at the door, stripped, and jumped into the shower. Even after a goodly amount of water had swirled down the plughole I didn’t really feel clean so I showered again with Dettol soap. A bit excessive maybe, but I’ve been keeping up with what is happening in Italy, Spain, and the US – the peeps in the local market probably haven’t been that scared yet!
Kampala is a very social place, and its inhabitants love to party. Weekends can start on Thursdays, and Monday-morning start times vary greatly, so it’s hard to get your head around physical distancing, not going to the pub or nightclub, and staying home with the family. And spare a thought for the people living in the slums, those who live from hand to mouth and have lost their livelihoods as cleaners, shopping mall staff (all closed), hairdressers and barbers, casual labourers, non-food shop workers, boda riders, bus and taxi drivers … . While government has set up food distribution points for those in need, this will may well be abused by the distributors. Even MPs have been asking for cash to “help fight Covid-19”. How, I can’t imagine! When the slum dwellers in Kampala have no clean water and no money to buy soap, if this virus gets into the community Uganda is snookered. Some of Kampala’s slums are built in swamps where disease is already rampant (dysentery, malaria, and more). And the most prevalent non-communicable diseases among the over-fifties appear to be “sugar” and “pressure” (diabetes and high blood pressure), often going untreated for lack of finances. Poorer people with these conditions will likely become even more vulnerable.
And for all this Uganda has not lost its innate sense of humour: while Twitter can be a scary place these days, it can also be a source of fun and entertainment. Watch these lads having a bit of fun with their donated food.
There was a Brussels Airlines flight yesterday from Entebbe evacuating Germans and some Belgians who simply wanted to go home. For me and The Man, Uganda is home and we’ve nowhere else to go. So we’re here for the duration. What will be will be. I’m hoping for a good ending despite what I’ve said in this post.
Slán agus beannacht! Stay home; stay safe; stay well.