Coronavirus: Uganda restricts travel abroad and public gatherings, to close schools

Restrictions on public gatherings and travel abroad by Ugandans as coronavirus cases rise in neighbouring countries

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni
President Yoweri Museveni on Wednesday, 18 March, announcing restrictions to limit the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Photo: PPU/State House (Facebook)

Uganda will close schools and limit public gatherings in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus, which has not yet been confirmed in the country, President Yoweri Museveni announced Wednesday in a national address.

The restrictions follow a decision of the cabinet, which sat on Monday, 16 March, Mr Museveni said. The order, effective immediately, applies to educational institutions, political gatherings, religious gatherings, weddings, funerals, markets, bars, concerts, and nightclubs, and will run for 32 days. Travel abroad to 17 coronavirus hotspots was also banned.

Non-agricultural workplaces will continue operating but with standard operating procedures, aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, defined by the ministry of health. No restriction was placed on farming activities.

“Since we have a very large number of people living with HIV (1.4m), having diabetes (800,000), hypertension (4.8m), TB (100,000 per year), we must do everything possible to ensure that this enemy does not come here, does not find plenty of dry grass piled up and ready for flaming,” Mr Museveni said.

Travel by Ugandans to or through 17 countries hardest hit by the pandemic was banned for 32 days with immediate effect. “Foreigners going to those countries are free to do so provided they do not intend to come back within the prohibited time,” the president said.

The countries are: Italy, San Marino, Switzerland, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Austria, the United States, Iran, South Korea, China, and Malaysia.

Travellers arriving in the country from the 17 “category one” countries, including Ugandans, will be quarantined at their cost in a designated place.

There are currently no confirmed coronavirus cases in Uganda. However, neighbouring countries, except for South Sudan, have reported positive cases, with no fatalities as yet.

Downside risk to economic growth

In early February, the Bank of Uganda said it expects economic activity to slow down in the near-term due to supply chain disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak. The economy is expected to grow at between 5.5 and 6% in the 2019 fiscal year, which runs to June 2020, below the bank’s initial 6.5% forecast.

“Although the economic impact on the domestic scene due to supply chain disruptions from coronavirus may be of a short duration, some sectors could be significantly affected given that China is one of Uganda’s major trading partners,” the central bank said.

It added that the impact on growth could “be larger than anticipated and more persistent” if the outbreak persists for an extended period.

After broadly remaining stable against the US dollar in January and February, the Uganda shilling closed Wednesday down 1.9% against the dollar in March, and down 3.3% in 2020 — not the best situation for a net importer.

The central bank was forced to sell dollars on Tuesday to stem the shilling’s slide. Its depreciation on Wednesday followed strong demand by commercial banks expecting the dollar to become costlier in the near future, a result of falling visitor arrivals and a fall in remittances caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

“On the side of the economy, there is no doubt that some sectors like tourism, hotels, sports, entertainment, etc., will be hit by the phenomenon of this disease,” Mr Museveni said. “However, others like the manufacturing sector will get a boost.”

Mr Museveni suggested that some countries blocking imports in response to the pandemic, waking up Africa to the fact that it is “suicidal to depend on others.” He said this should inspire Ugandans to build local manufacturing capacity.

Other measures include:

  • Compulsory hand-washing at work places — factories, hotels, large plantations, markets, taxi-parts, etc. — by all persons entering and exiting. Employers will install temperature monitors and anybody with symptoms of sickness will not be allowed access.
  • The ministry of health will publish standard operating procedures governing the use of money in markets and banks, such as disinfecting coins. If possible, Mr Museveni advised transacting through mobile money and online platforms.
  • Farmers will “go about their most useful activities in their dispersed form,” since they live in rural areas where population densities are low, but should stay away from worship places and political rallies. Monthly markets for cattle keepers and cultivators are suspended. In the case of fisherfolk, the ministry of health will come up with appropriate standard operating procedures regulating activities at “concentrated landing sites.”
  • Companies operating public transport will be given mandatory standard operating procedures by the ministry of health. Although public transport will continue, the president advised against all but essential travel. In the event of an outbreak in a given area, public transport in that area will be forbidden and the area isolated.

Month-long suspension on public events and ‘merry-making’

While the ban on other activities is effective immediately, schools and educational institutions will operate until noon on Friday after which they will close for 30 days.

The president said he decided to close schools earlier, before the confirmation of coronavirus in the country, to avoid chaos in the transport sector in the event of positive cases.

Political meetings — including public rallies, conferences, and elections — cultural events, and religious gatherings have also been banned. Mr Museveni added that “Uganda-style weddings that bring together a pentagon of groups” should be postponed because they risk spreading the coronavirus.

“If, however, the couples intending to marry are really in a hurry, they could go for a purely scientific wedding, only involving the core stakeholders who are: the bridegroom, the bride, the best man, the assistant to the bride (matron), the Priest (or the CAO), etc., as long as the number is less than 10 people.”

Funerals and burials will proceed, but only with few participants.  However, the state will take over the burial of people suspected of dying from the coronavirus, as it has always done for Ebola victims, so it can inter them “in a scientific way without the involvement of the family.” This is to prevent cultural practices that cause others to come into contact with the body.

Mr Museveni added that “merry-making ─ the discos, the dances, bars, sports, music shows, cinemas and concerts” is suspended because such events are usually crowded and would easily spread the coronavirus.