THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | On June 24 morning I walked into Kikuubo, the epicenter of Uganda’s trade, in Kampala city. I found tens of thousands of people congested on the streets selling merchandise. While Kikuubo is always crowded, this time it was overcrowded; with the street teaming with chaos of traders selling from the street and from their cars, plus hawkers and vendors.
Our government has told us that they are keeping shopping arcades closed in order to avoid congestion. However, three months into the lockdown, during which most traders have not been earning anything to survive, government seems unaware that people are getting desperate. Traders have moved their wares from their shops inside arcades and are now selling from the streets, hence leading to overcrowding.
It was clear to me that government actions are now beginning to produce unintended consequences. As the Kikuubo experience demonstrates, the solution is now worse than the problem.
For instance, whatever the risks are associated with shopping arcades, they are controllable. Government can put in place regulations, as they have done with shopping malls, to ensure that people entering shopping arcades are first sanitised and also temperature tested. This cost would go to the arcade owner and police and Ministry of Health officials can inspect these shopping arcades regularly to ensure compliance.
Secondly, and again as government has done with shopping malls, it can require that every shop in the arcade have a sanitiser and a temperature tester. Again police and Ministry of Health officials can regularly conduct impromptu checks to ensure compliance. What is shocking is that government had not earlier thought of this. The first time the ministers of Trade and KCCA officials went to inspect arcades with a view to do exactly this was Friday June 26.
In the meantime, the desperation of traders has led to a disaster. First, traders are selling their wares on the streets where the government has zero capacity to enforce the Standard Operating Procedures (compliance measures) that it can impose on arcade owners and tenants. Second, the shift to the streets denies government access to revenues since traders must not be paying rent for shops they are not using. So the incomes of arcade owners have been harmed alongside government revenues from rental income.
But the worse risk is of people congesting the streets without facemasks and other controls, which, ironically has increased the risk of contagion, the very risk government is seeking to mitigate. Secondly in keeping arcades locked, government has lost an opportunity to regulate behavior and conduct on the streets. What explains this?
It seems to me that when government ordered the lockdown, its objective was misguided i.e. it sought to control the existence of the virus to zero as a condition for opening up. This was a utopian vision, which even a primary school teacher would have seen as impossible.
Uganda is not an island on mars. We have immediate neighbours whose actions we have little or no control over. Besides our neighbors like South Sudan and DRC have weak and absentee states that cannot ensure effective control of the spread of the virus.
Our other neighbours like Tanzania and to an extent Kenya have been lax in their enforcement of measures that limit the spread of the virus. And once we open the borders and airport to passengers, it will become increasingly difficult to stop the entry of the virus into our country. Therefore, a prudent policy on the lockdown was not to see the lockdown as a solution but as a stopgap measure to build state capacity to control the spread of the virus, knowing that we cannot completely eliminate it from our midst. Hence the objective should be how to live with it while limiting its ability to spread rapidly and widely across the country, and how to ensure treatment for those who contract the disease.
I had always thought that this was the vision of the government of Uganda. I thought they would use lockdown to build the state capacity for monitoring, testing and contact tracing of people who test positive. This would give them capacity to isolate the infected and quarantine them. The second aim would have been to build a highly robust administrative machine to ensure enforcement of standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the management of public transport, public buildings, shopping malls and arcades, markets, concerts, churches etc. Finally I had thought that government would use the lockdown to build the capacity of public medical facilities to handle COVID patients in both mild and critical conditions.
The President ordered the lockdown on March 30; that is over three months ago, almost 100 days end of this week. Yet, we hear that it is now that government is trying to put in place SOPs for the management these public facilities. In fact government has no plan yet on how to open boda bodas for business, yet this is a sector that employs over one million Ugandans who live hand to mouth. Given that an average household in Uganda has five persons, it means the livelihoods of more than five million people are at stake, without any income, if boda bodas are not opened for passenger business.
Finally to build a capacity of 1,200 intensive care unit beds in Uganda required less than $10m (Shs 37 billion) for ventilators, $5m (Shs 18.5 billion) for monitors, and a little over one million dollars for oxygen plants. If one adds about $3m (Shs 10 billion) for protective medical equipment for our health professionals, it is clear that a lot would have been achieved. Instead huge resources have been poured into the wrong places in pursuit of unachievable aims and goals. Vital time has been lost in this utopian dream of a COVID-free Uganda. Why have we failed to think? Or have we?
It is very possible there is a lot of incompetence and poor internal coordination of things inside government. This creates a toxic combination that explains some of the failures we see. But it is also possible that some people may be turning this into an opportunity to make money, the larger the scare the larger would be their budgets and roles. If this profiteering is done by powerful forces inside the state, then we can be sure that COVID will not be defeated. Instead COVID may have become a continuous springboard for private profiteering.