THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | This week, in his regular COVID19 briefings, President Yoweri Museveni claimed boda bodas are not an effective means of public transport! Who decides whether a particular mode of transport is effective: the president, a committee of experts or commuters i.e. the market? Ugandan commuters (the market) have consistently voted with their wallets for boda bodas as the most convenient and effective means of public transport!
Secondly, the president also said that he was delaying allowing boda bodas back onto the roads because they are a health risk in this age of COVID. He then proceeded to open omnibuses and buses for public transport. Clearly, the president’s advisors must have misled him. How can a bus or omnibus be safer than a boda boda taxi in terms of spreading an airborne disease? This is all strange.
An omnibus or bus is an enclosed space with limited circulation of air. Either of them, even under the new regulations of carrying half their usual passenger load, will carry 42 (for buses) and eight (for omnibuses) passengers each. Therefore in anyone trip the people exposed to the risk of contracting the virus are many. The boda boda, on the other hand, can be regulated to carry only one passenger at a time, thereby reducing the risk to only one person – the rider or the passenger.
Secondly, because boda bodas are not enclosed, they ensure the best airflow, with wind literally reducing the risk of contamination. If properly regulated, with enforcement of strict rules for both rider and passenger to wear facemasks and sanitize, the risk of spreading the virus is significantly reduced compared to buses and omnibuses that the president has allowed. Therefore boda bodas are clearly the safest means of public transport to limit, even though not eliminate, the spread of COVID.
Of course many people have raised substantial complaints about the safety of boda bodas. They congest the city (Kampala) and are responsible for a high number of motor accidents (about 67%) and drive recklessly without due regard to traffic laws and regulations. While these concerns are legitimate, they also reflect not only the self-indulgence of Ugandan elites but also equally their blindness to the concept of tradeoffs.
Some of Uganda’s elites are detached from the daily struggles of our youths! So they focus on the personal inconvenience they face at the hands of boda bodas and ignore the convenience this mode of transport creates for so many people in this country. They are also blind to the contribution boda bodas to the livelihoods of millions of our people and to our economy, both in monetary and also none monetary terms.
Look at the economic impact of boda bodas: whatever your views about them, the total revenue generated by boda boda is anything from Shs13 trillion to Shs15.6 trillion per year, 10% to 12% of Uganda’s GDP! They employ about 1.2 million youths, each of them earning (at a conservative estimate) Shs250,000 per week. And they provide livelihood to 6 million people (assuming every household on average has five persons)! And 90% of boda boda business is on passenger transport, not cargo!
While our elites in Kampala focus to personal inconvenience at the hands of boda boda riders in the city, and use this to argue for banning of this mode of transport, they ignore the fact that the vast majority of boda bodas are not in Kampala. They are spread across the entire country. Indeed, in many parts of rural Uganda, boda bodas are the only means of transport to rush people to health centers in times of medical emergencies, carry goods and people to markets and mark the transition of many youths from dependence on agriculture to services for a livelihood, a process of transformational dimensions.
Boda bodas have been off the streets of Kampala for two months, and in the rest of the country. If the president is not willing to let them carry passengers, he should provide a solution to the incomes of 1.2 million riders and the livelihoods of over 6 million Ugandans! If not, he should find ways to allow boda bodas to carry passengers while minimising the risk of spreading COVID!
I am involved in boda bodas through a social enterprise that seeks to help unemployed youths own assets (boda bodas, refrigerators, omnibuses, special hire taxis and now we are thinking of motorised fishing boats) from which they derive their livelihood! As stakeholders we have ideas on how to allow boda bodas carry passengers with little or no risk of spreading COVID. Rather than make decisions alone, the government should have consulted stakeholders.
Museveni has taken an extreme view of COVID, suggesting that only saving lives from this single disease matters and all else is secondary. Yet earning an income is life saving as it helps people meet their basic needs without which they would starve to death. It makes no sense to save anyone from the risk of being killed by COVID only to meet certain death via starvation! We need to think of the economic destitution of a significant share of our people resulting from depriving them of their only source of livelihood for two months.
It also makes no sense for government to provide food for people who can provide it for themselves. In any case government has no resources to feed 6 million people who depend on boda bodas for a livelihood, and neither does it have the resources to meet their medical bills for others illnesses other than COVID. A balance has to be found on how to ease the lockdown and return the country to normalcy while minimising, as opposed to eliminating, the risk of the spread of the virus.
The focus on preventing the spread of COVID is commendable but the cost of the solution is increasingly becoming bigger than the problem itself. Uganda needs to find a creative balance between sustaining the economy and preventing COVID! We cannot kill the economy in the name of a utopian vision of preventing the spread of a disease that has no cure or vaccine! Uganda needs to plan how to live with COVID while minimising its spread. This can be achieved through effective administrative regulations, tight monitoring and tracking of potential victims, and building medical capacity to hospitalise the ill. So Mr President please open Uganda to boda bodas.