Otunu’s Open Letter to President Museveni on Battle Against COVID-19

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Dr Olara-Otunu - Online Photo

Your Excellency , Mr President ,                                                        

 Re : Uganda’s Response to Coronavirus .

Our country , in tandem with the whole world , is under siege from a deadly , invisible enemy , Coronavirus ( Covid-19) . Barely  two months following its discovery in Wuhan , China , this little-known new virus had already turned the whole world upside down .  In its wake , we are witnessing the decimation of lives and the collapse of livelihoods ( economies ) on a scale unknown since the influenza epidemic of 1918 .

Overcoming the pandemic  has  become an existential struggle for all societies and all governments . For the most part , all governments are drawing from the same repertoire of response measures ( testing & tracing  , washing hands & physical distancing , banning gatherings   , closing schools , controlling  travel & borders ,  stopping work ,  imposing quarantines and lockdowns , etc ) ,  under guidelines provided by WHO . The effectiveness of responses  has varied , turning largely  on the timing ,  robustness and comprehensiveness of the response measures adopted .

Mr President , here in Uganda , you have been spearheading our national response . That is the reason for addressing this open letter to you . Since mid-March , you have now convoked the nation on 15 occasions to deliver televised addresses , devoted to Coronavirus . You have issued 35 mandatory directives . The nation-wide lockdown , first announced on 21 March , has been renewed three times .

From the outset , I must express a very warm tribute to our health professionals and scientists . They have risen to this moment with great  professionalism and dedication  . Under  the very able leadership of Health Minister , Dr Jane Ruth Aceng , they have demonstrated , against enormous odds ,  that they are up to any task ,  anytime . The stellar performance of these unsung heroes , underscores the appalling conditions in which they have been labouring for so many  years .

Another impressive success has been the awareness campaign . All communities in Uganda are  now well-informed about Coronavirus . Hand-washing routine has caught on everywhere . May this continue long after Coronavirus ! The big challenge , requiring more effort , remains practicing physical distancing . Ugandans are  finding it difficult to adapt to this rather strange , anti-social ,  but absolutely necessary conduct . For the foreseeable future , we are bound to observe physical distancing everywhere .

Mr President , the  measures you have promulgated are all on target  . Indeed all of them correspond to WHO guidelines and actions taken by other countries . In order to draw necessary lessons for the long fight ahead and for future crises , it is important to review key aspects of Uganda’s response  . This is the purpose of this open letter to you .

I. Major Lapses in Response

 We have been especially weak on testing .  Yet aggressive testing within communities has been the key to effective response everywhere .Without wide randomised community testing , we cannot know the levels of infection within the country .

The focus , during March ,  on monitoring arriving passengers at Entebbe Airport , was necessary and important . Unfortunately ,  this exclusive preoccupation with one entry point , diverted attention from three equally crucial sources of risk that needed very early intervention , namely : travelers entering Uganda through land borders  ; cross-border truck drivers ;  and community testing . The rapid testing survey conducted since end of April is useful , but it came quite late and its coverage remained  narrow . Mercifully , the survey results are reassuring . But without broader and longer community testing , it would be premature to conclude that “we have no community transmission “ .

Unlike  entry into developed countries , most travelers enter Uganda  through formal and informal land border crossings ; some also enter via lakes Victoria and Albert . Apart from South Sudan ,  Coronavirus announced its impending  arrival by striking our neighbors first .  From the very beginning  , government should have focused , like a beam , on these high-risk , corruption-prone , porous land border points . But , until end of March ,  it was ‘business-as-usual’ at these border-points . This was a major lapse in response .

The worst and most costly lapse in response relates to the cross-border , long-distance truck drivers .  We have known , since the earlier experience with HIV-AIDS , that this group can be a particularly efficient conveyor of contagion . Following a series of WHO alerts , and certainly the  arrival of Coronavirus in our own neighborhood , government should have made the monitoring and testing of truck drivers its absolute top priority . Testing of these  drivers only started on 16 May .

Incidentally , I notice that government has suddenly started to divide into two categories ( Ugandans and non-Ugandans ) persons who have tested positive within Uganda . This is chauvinistic and misleading . This fight is about public health , not nationality .

The high spate of infections emanating from Dubai seemed to have caught government by great surprise . Dubai has become a massive air transit hub for travel to China , Europe and North America . For our traders , it is the largest sourcing center for consumer goods destined for Uganda and many other African countries . That is why the three daily flights , from Entebbe to Dubai ,  are always packed . In the context of Coronavirus , our intelligence would have quickly signaled Dubai as a source of far greater risk for Ugandan travelers than any European or North American country .

If ever there was a crisis tailor-made for a collective response by the East African Community ,  then it is certainly Coronavirus . By now , several EAC virtual summits should have been held ,  devoted to  Coronavirus , to charting a harmonized  EAC-wide strategy and  response .  Where is the EAC , when we need it most ? Valiant but divergent national interventions are inefficient and not as effective . For Uganda particularly  ,  as a small ,  landlocked , transit country  , it will be well-nigh impossible to insulate itself from what may continue to circulate in the regional neighborhood . It is simply in everybody’s interest to press for collective regional response ; it is late , but not too late .

II. Important Pending Measures .

Mr President , you have issued a raft of directives . However , we have not yet heard anything concerning some of the most critical  necessary measures . Let me signal some .

Most people are hurting terribly from the impact of the lockdown . Families across the country are actually starving . A lot of SMEs and informal-sector operators risk collapsing altogether . We have been waiting for two critical packages from government . First ,  a relief package to provide immediate mitigation and support for those in desperate need ; this  package would should include relief measures for taxes , rents , loans , utilities , and food . Second ,  a financial package designed to stimulate economic recovery after lockdown ; this should especially target small-scale farmers , informal-sector operators and SMEs .

The  2020/21 budget was prepared  before Coronavirus turned the world up-side-down . We have a radically new situation . That budget must be revisited . It should now be devoted to three priority tasks : containing Coronavirus , mitigating the impact of the lockdown , and facilitating economic recovery .

In the regular budget as well as the recent supplementary budget ,  “ classified” expenditure , continues to loom unnaturally large , amounting to a whopping 2.8 trillion shillings and 524 billion shillings , respectively .Government must now level with Ugandans about the purposes of these enormous , unaccountable funds . For years , this mysterious expenditure has operated effectively as a private ATM at State House .  It was always a scandal . But given the pain of Ugandans today , this is all the more unacceptable and immoral . The “classified”  funds should be redeployed for the epic fight against Coronavirus.

We all are very proud of the heroic efforts of our health workers and scientists . To underscore the importance of their work and the appreciation of a grateful nation , government should immediately earmark funds to support them and facilitate their crucial work . Immediate provision should include adequate PPE , necessary hospital equipments , logistical support , ambulances , and decent wages .

 We are now witnessing the humiliating spectacle of the government , begging bowl in hand , frantically pleading for donations from the public , to buy everything ;  to buy PPE , ambulances , vehicles and machines for hospitals , testing kits , etc . Where then has all the government money gone , from taxes , international aid and grants , and loans ? Before this crisis , how many ambulances and hospital vehicles had been purchased by government itself ( not NGOs , embassies or MPs ) ? Instead of investing in our own health service , government has been spending over 500 billion shillings annually for medical treatment abroad .

Mr President , I notice that , with long-haul cargo stuck at our borders , you have been calling for the urgent revival of the railways , arguing , correctly , that “railways is a far more efficient and economic means of transporting cargo than trucks “ . I welcome this epiphany . It was your administration that deliberately dismantled ( in favour of self-serving private interests ) the railways , together with several key institutions and services , including :   cooperatives ;  marketing boards for coffee , cotton and produce ; Uganda Commercial Bank ; Uganda Airlines ; subsidies and support to farmers ; etc. These institutions and services were designed to empower Ugandans and build a solid domestic economic base .

A  particularly important  pending issue is the reopening of schools . Closing was easy , opening is more complex . I support government decision to start with candidate classes only  . In the ‘new norm’ , it will be necessary to organise physical distancing , hand-washing , mask-wearing , temperature monitoring , and randomized testing , in schools . This is a major undertaking . Moreover , most rural schools simply do not have the facilities to adapt to the ‘new norm’ . A lot of planning , reorganization and new investment are required before full reopening can be safe .

In any democracy , there is no exercise of power without accountability . That is why , as they take tough response measures to contain the pandemic , we see leaders , all over the world ,  regularly reporting and seeking  approval of their parliaments . This has not been the case in Uganda . This is highly anormalous  . It is critical that the far-reaching measures you are compelled to take are reviewed  and scrutinized by Parliament .

In the televised addresses , you have unveiled several immediate steps and the reasons behind them . We now need a national plan of action , setting out a coherent and systematic strategy for this long fight . Since you have started to ease the lockdown , people are eager to know where all this is heading  .

III. Non-partisan Leadership .

Mr President , when their nations have been under a crisis of this magnitude , historic leaders have reached deep within their own souls and decided to park on the side their entrenched partisanship , self-serving interests and parochialisms ; this for the sake of the greater common good  .  At this seminal moment  for Uganda , will you find it within yourself to do this  ? Some of the recent actions have been quite alarming .

Consider the saga of food distribution . All over the world , when the population

 is exposed to hunger ( as Ugandans are today ) , their government will readily welcome all who can pitch in   – – charities , churches & mosques , leaders from all sectors – – to distribute relief to those in distress . At this very moment , this is going on in most countries  . Alas ,  in Uganda , you have decreed otherwise . Apart from the government task force , nobody is allowed to distribute relief. Can it be that calculated political gains that may accrue from this monopoly  are trumping the desperate needs of starving Ugandans ?

Mr President , you have gone one step further . In an extraordinary development , you have actually ordained that any persons  found distributing food , outside the official task force , would be charged with committing “attempted murder” ! When I first heard you say this  , I was stunned .  I thought this was a ‘slip of the tongue ‘ that you would immediately correct . Instead , you have repeated this outrageous pronouncement with obvious glee . How have we come to this ?

This pronouncement has incited certain elements in the security forces to commit atrocities . This is the backdrop to the arrest , torture and savaging of Mityana MP , Francis Zaake . I could not believe that your only reaction to this horror was to ask a casual rhetorical question . You wondered aloud why the police singled out Zaake , while turning a blind eye to food distribution by government ministers and NRM big wigs . So , in the the matter of torturing  Zaake ,  the president and the commander-in-chief has suddenly become a helpless bystander !

Mr President , all this calls for some serious soul-searching .

Mr President , the world will not be the same after  Coronavirus is done with us . From the ravages of this pandemic we can draw seminal lessons to reset and reorder key aspects of our nation’s comprehensive   brokenness . Once again , this calls for a genuinely patriotic , non-partisan leadership that is animated , above all else , by the best interests of Uganda and Ugandans . In this ,  history will judge them , not by their words , but “ by the fruit they bear “.

 Mr President , lest I forget , I saw your office push-up routine . Quite impressive .

Please , accept my best wishes for your continued good health . May God protect and bless our country in this moment of great tribulation .

                                                           Olara  Otunnu, Buddo .

                                                                                                                        

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