Museveni lifts lockdown — or did he?

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

Going into President Museveni’s 18th speech on the Covid-19 pandemic, there was wide expectation that he would announce a relaxation of lockdown measures instituted in March and April.

The expectations were not unfounded: many countries across the world have started lifting their lockdowns and allowed the resumption of some activities, of course with caveats. These include countries that have reported infections in the thousands and dozens of deaths from the coronavirus.

Uganda, on the other hand, has reported 260 confirmed infections and zero [confirmed] deaths (there were two suspicious deaths reported by Lacor Hospital, but the Uganda Virus Research Institute says the two fatalities did not die of Covid-19). And as the president pointed out in his Monday evening address, there have been few community transmissions: most of the recent infections are among truck drivers, Ugandan and foreign. So far, measures taken by the government have been largely successful in keeping the virus under control, he said.

Therefore, with close to two months into a restrictive and economically damaging lockdown, many people thought it was time to relax the tough restrictions. It was the prevailing sentiment on social media, where initial praise for the government and some of its frontline ministers has turned to frustration and cynicism.

But in a sign of things to come, there was confusion about the president’s address with just hours left to the initially announced time. Don Wanyama, the senior press secretary to the president announced that the address had been postponed to Tuesday, 19 May. A few hours later Mr Wanyama announced that “after wide consultation” the speech was back on for Monday.

Originally slated for 8pm, the president made an appearance an hour later. With the introductory remarks out of the way, he said everyone in the room was wearing a mask because they are now mandatory, a directive he had announced in the previous speech. But he would be removing his so he could speak more easily, he said.

After thirteen addresses, the script of the events is familiar to the public. Mr Museveni reads from a stapled sheet of papers, stopping occasionally to explain, elaborate, or translate a term or statement from English to a Ugandan local language; his favourite is by far his own Runyankore, closely followed by Luganda. This time, he threw in phrases in Luo, Lusoga and a few other languages. He also likes cracking jokes, but this was not his most jovial address.

The president laid out Uganda’s experience with the coronavirus, mentioning the health worker who identified the first positive case at Entebbe International Airport. As he always does, he mentioned measures instituted to control the virus – although not in such detail as before. Health workers on the frontlines were cheered and promised medals – although we believe they would prefer better compensation. There was also a promise to install ICU’s in most hospitals across the country, even as those already in place, which he mentioned, are barely operational.

Moving on to the current situation, Mr Museveni said a majority of the new positive infections are transregional cargo truck drivers. He said that he had seen comments from Ugandans, frustrated with the growing infections among that group and the tougher measures they are likely to inspire, asking that the government stops trucks drivers from entering the country. This is not realistic and would amount to self-sabotage, he said. Uganda depends on those truck drivers; they bring in required supplies, as imports, and transport her exports to regional countries and to the coast. Of the goods coming into the country via trucks, 75% are used within while only 25% proceed to other inland countries, Mr Museveni said. He emphasised that the debate should not be whether they enter or not, but rather how they are handled.

Instead, the East African Community has agreed on measures to contain the threat posed by truck drivers, the president said, and these are informing the government’s response. The measures include requiring drivers to test in their home countries before starting their journeys; only those drivers who test negative will be allowed to enter Uganda, he said. All drivers who enter the country will also have to use a “truck driver journey management system” mobile app so they can be monitored while in the country. This is a departure from the previous practice where truck drivers were allowed to proceed with their journeys after being tested on entry, which was aimed at reducing costs for transporters. Some of the drivers, who later tested positive, had instead gone on to mix with the population, which required a change in tack.

On masks, which are compulsory for public spaces, the president said he had seen complaints of those who say they are unable to acquire masks. To address the concerns, the government will provide masks free of charge to Ugandans aged six and above; the distribution will be done through the local council system.

Most people listening to the speech were waiting for a particular message, however: an easing of the lockdown. Mr Museveni seemed to sense this and got to the meat of the matter much quicker than in any of his previous Covid-19 speeches.

Mr Museveni delivered the goods: starting Wednesday, 20 May, shops selling general merchandise will be allowed to reopen, provided that they are not in malls, shopping arcades, or food markets. These shops must, however, maintain social distance measures. Markets should also separate food and non-food sections, which had shown to be effective in limiting crowding.

He added that public transport — buses, minibuses, and taxis — will also be allowed to resume operating provided they carry only half of their capacity. But this does not apply to border districts, where public transport is still prohibited for another 21 days. Boda bodas are also not allowed to carry passengers yet.

But there was a catch. To ensure that easing public transport would not lead to more infections, both operators and passengers had to wear masks, in line with the earlier directive. The only acceptable mask for this purpose, the president said, is the type the government will distribute, apparently because it is of a higher quality and offers more protection. In short: lockdown easing would have to wait until the government had distributed its masks, two weeks after the announcement.

Private cars will also be allowed back on the roads but with the earlier stipulation that they do not carry more than three people. The directive on this was not very clear, however: can the driver and their passengers wear any mask or should they also wait for government masks?

He added that education institutions will be allowed to reopen for the second school term, but only pupils and students in finalist classes will be allowed back to school. Of course, social distancing measures will have to be implemented by schools.

Most businesses in the service sector were not as lucky as transport and will stay closed for another three weeks. These include bars, hair salons, barbershops, night clubs, gyms, swimming pools, etc. The reason: they cannot easily implement social distancing rules.

In addition, Uganda’s only international airport at Entebbe will remain closed. This means air travel into and out of the country will be restricted for the next month or so. He admitted that this will continue hurting tourism, but apparently there was little the government can do to stop the importation of more cases.

Mr Museveni concluded by saying that all other measures announced earlier will remain in place, including the night curfew from 7pm to 6:30am.

The reaction, in sitting rooms across the country, on social media, in chat apps, was one of confusion. In what way had the lockdown been eased, “starting” Wednesday, if nearly all the activities on which restrictions had been removed could not start until the government distributed its masks two weeks later?

If it has taken the government close to two months to distribute food in just two districts — Kampala and Wakiso — why are authorities confident that they will be able to distribute millions of masks across the country in just two weeks? And that process was marred by the poor quality of food distributed in some areas. Is Nytil, the local mask manufacturer, capable of producing so many masks in such little time?

The general consensus is that Mr Museveni and his cabinet wanted to extend the restrictions but are aware that there is lockdown fatigue. The challenge was how to balance the two conflicting desires. The result: ease the lockdown, but don’t really ease it.

In effect, the government gets another two weeks to “study” the pandemic’s spread and decide whether to “ease” its restrictions or extend them. As someone put it on social media, let us pray that two weeks later the president does not come back and tell us that a fire knocked out Nytil’s machines.