How public anger against Uganda government’s response to COVID is driven more by prejudice than facts
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Last Saturday, I lost my auntie, Princess Damali Komukyeeya of Toro. I tweeted that although she had COVID, she was fairly fine Friday evening. She developed breathing difficulties on Saturday morning. When rushed to hospital, “there was no oxygen” but that was a poor framing imposed on me by Twitter’s limits on characters. She found all the beds at Mulago occupied, so there was no place for her to be put on oxygen. My tweet went viral; viewed by 540,000 people with 54,000 engagements.
Some people celebrated that I had lost an auntie because previously I had said Mulago Hospital is well equipped, which it is. Others said I have been insensitive to the death of opposition activists killed by “this regime.” A few quoted a tweet I posted in 2016. It was a hypothetical argument where I said that if a public official stole money meant for a hospital and used it to build a factory, such a factory may serve a better social goal than the hospital. Some commenters said I had gotten what I deserved.
I don’t mind anyone celebrating my relatives’ deaths if it helps them feel better. I am aware this world tends to be very harsh and judgmental to those who do not perform according to the criteria society defines as “success.” Instead, it tends to stigmatise them, making them feel unworthy. These people lash back with venom, often at self-invented social enemies i.e. those in society they consider responsible for their misfortune. In our case, it is those (in their view) that seem powerful and influential.
Yet this anger, while understandable, is often counterproductive. It does not help, except momentarily for an emotional high, the cause of those who feel left behind. In today’s age of social media, social anger propels demagogues to the forefront of politics. These exploit public frustration for their own ambitions to raise to power. They do so by fear mongering, setting one group against another. They achieve this by inventing social enemies based on identity. This makes governance difficult and expensive.
To stabilise politics in a polarised environment, incumbents are forced to rely more on corruption to placate the interests of these powerful politicians who whip up hate. We have seen them in United States via Donald Trump. But we have also seen them in action during Brexit, in Philippines, India, Turkey, Hungry and across most of Europe and other nations of the world. They tend to deepen social cleavages, heighten tensions, set citizens against each other and undermine democratic politics.
There is a deep sense of grievance among large sections of Ugandans. Many feel the country is being mismanaged by extremely corrupt and greedy politicians who do not care about the ordinary citizen. This has given birth to an outrage machine that profits from whipping up this public resentment. I suspect that this anger is driven by factors beyond any leader of Uganda can solve in a lifetime. Yet people need to find a villain to blame, that is the only way they can vent their anger. In our specific case, a long serving president as Yoweri Museveni makes the perfect villain to blame. Yet this sentiment does not actually rhyme with the facts.
For instance, many Ugandans argue that COVID is “devastating” our country because of the corruption of “this regime;” that our healthcare system is grossly mismanaged. On twitter, some attributed my auntie’s death to this “corruption.” This argument is very appealing but wrong. First, on what basis can we conclude that Uganda has performed badly in handling COVID? I want to imagine that deaths would be the best measure of performance. Since COVID began, Uganda had by June 28 lost 900 people, or 19 deaths per one million people. This is not to say that this low number lessens the emotional pain of those who have lost loved ones.
However, Uganda has not performed very badly – at least for now. It is hard to know whether this is due to government action or luck or the blessing of the gods or some structural factors such as demography, residence etc.
What is clear is that nations with large sums of money and highly developed healthcare systems have performed much worse than Uganda. The richest country in the world with the most advanced and well-equipped hospitals and medical personnel, the USA, has lost 620,000 or 1,861 deaths per one million people; the UK 1,977, Italy 2,111, Spain 1,777, Germany 689, Sweden 1,435, Belgium 2,162, Switzerland 1,248, Austria 1,182, Denmark 436, Ireland 999, Norway 145.
Even in Africa, Uganda’s performance remains comparatively good. Africa’s leading democracies with regular change of government (the basis on which we imagine “good governance”) such as Ghana has had 25 death per one million citizens, South Africa 998, Botswana 457, Zambia 107, Senegal 68, Kenya 65, Namibia 541. Even Africa’s most effective states, Rwanda 32 and Ethiopia 37 have so far lost more people per one million than Uganda. This is not to say that this necessarily means Uganda has a better healthcare system than North America and Western Europe and other African countries. But it demonstrates that public anger against the government for a badly managed response is mistaken.
The countries worst hit by COVID are also the richest in the world with the most advanced medical facilities and personnel in the world. Many have implemented “smart” solutions but performed badly. The poorest countries of Africa, whom “experts” had predicted would suffer the most have fared the best.
USA, UK, France, Italy, etc. with all the money, medical equipment, best personnel and hospitals ran out of beds for COVID patients. If these countries can fail to handle COVID cases, why do we expect poor Uganda to do any better. We should be celebrating, even though cautiously, that we have not faced the disaster “experts” had predicted.
Thus, even though my auntie died for failure to access oxygen in time, I still believe that our medical services and our wider healthcare system have punched far above their weight. We are a very poor country that even with the best effort there is a limit to what we can achieve. Yet even though we face innumerable and seemingly insurmountable problems, I am always conscious of the fact that we too easily ignore our endowments, our strengths and imagine others are better. It is this sense of frustration that makes us angry and pushes us into self-hate, which is counterproductive.