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Uganda, Zambia hit by Covid spikes. Are political rallies to blame?

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Wednesday, 23 June 2021 13:53

Ghana launches COVID-19 vaccination campaign
A nurse prepares a dose of the of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine during the vaccination campaign at the Ridge Hospital in Accra, Ghana, March 2, 2021. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko

Uganda had been praised for its initial coronavirus response. Now, a more lethal wave of Covid-19 is sweeping the country, in part driven by political decisions. Questions remain over the swearing-in ceremony of President Yoweri Museveni, which may have acted as a super-spreader event. Zambia, with elections in August, has some tough decisions to make.

Uganda received plaudits from many health experts for its efficient management of the first coronavirus wave. However, the country has been hit by a deadly second wave, prompting Museveni to declare a total lockdown of 42 days. No one is allowed to move except essential workers and those attending to emergencies.

In an article published by the American Journal of Public Health in 2020, Ahmed Sarki, Alex Ezeh and Saverio Stranges applauded Uganda as a “model for pandemic management in Africa”.

Why the plaudits? Uganda had scored highly in pandemic risk communication, testing and community task forces instituted in all districts for surveillance. Although some Asian countries such as South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan are considered as exemplary around the world in their public health response to the pandemic, the authors argued that Uganda’s response, both in African and global contexts, should be commended.

“It teaches us that the economic standing (high or low income) of a country does not necessarily determine preparedness for pandemics,” they said. “This is true not only for countries in Africa such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt (the top three economies and the three countries with the most Covid-19 cases) but also for high-income countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom.”

Lethal second wave

But the country has been hit by a deadly wave and now tops the list of African countries that have seen a high spike in new cases in comparison to the numbers of cases registered at the start of the pandemic. Uganda last month registered 28,173 cases, which is 39% of all the positive cases since the start of the pandemic, according to an analysis from the John Hopkins University coronavirus database on 21 June.

The rapid surge in the intensity of the pandemic appears unprecedented.

Across the border, in the past month, Kenya reported 6% of its almost 180,000 total cases while Rwanda has recorded 13% of its more than 30,000 cumulative cases.

The Tanzanian and Burundian governments did not take the pandemic seriously, and as a result, they have not been testing or reporting cases. However, after President Samia Suluhu Hassan took over from coronavirus sceptic John Pombe Magufuli in March, Tanzania is now seeking a $500m loan from the IMF, with the promise of reporting coronavirus data.

In Southern Africa, Zambia is one of the countries experiencing a huge spike in cases. In the past one month, it recorded 27% of its almost 130,000 total cases. Within the same period, neighbouring South Africa – that has been hit hard by the pandemic – recorded 10% of its 1.8million cumulative cases. In Zambia, politicians are focusing on the August presidential election.

West African countries

Ghana, that has registered only 1.4% of its total cases in the past month, and Senegal, which recorded 3% of its cumulative cases in the same period, seem to be winning the battle against the pandemic. Senegal and Ghana were better prepared due to experience from handling earlier pandemics and swift government response. But unlike Uganda, the West African states are still on the success trajectory.

Uganda’s laxity propelled by politics

Between January 2021 and early May, Uganda was registering less than 100 cases per day. Business had returned to normal after the January general elections, politicians were starting to hold meetings and schools had resumed regular classes.

On 12 May, an estimated 4,000 people – including 11 heads of state – attended Museveni’s swearing-in for his sixth term. This was in spite of positive cases rising steeply at the start of May and in contradiction of the government’s pandemic regulations that capped gatherings at 200 people. Since the start of June, Uganda has been registering more than 1,000 cases per day, according to the WHO coronavirus tracker.

At the end of May, Museveni brushed off recommendations for a total lockdown. However, he later settled for a ‘mini-lockdown’: closure of schools, stopping inter-district travel and strict adherence to pandemic operating procedures such as wearing masks in public. When cases continued increasing, Museveni ordered a 42-day total lockdown on 18 June, banning movement of cars and motorcycles with the exception of essential workers and emergency situations.

“The rapid surge in the intensity of the pandemic appears unprecedented, but still manageable using similar measures we have used since last year at the beginning of the pandemic,” Museveni said. “The proportion of people testing positive from samples has remained as high as 17%. Yet for us to control the disease effectively, this number has to be less than 5%.”

Uganda is also experiencing a steep rise in Covid-19 fatalities. As of 22 June, the country had recorded 221 deaths in one week, which is 32.5% of total Covid-19 deaths registered since the start of the pandemic. Museveni said his government is “cognisant that both the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths may be higher than this.”

There has been shortage of oxygen and beds in intensive care units for coronavirus patients across the country. Last week, 30 fatalities were reported at Mulago National Referral Hospital due to a lack of oxygen.

Ugandans have also been crying foul over the hike in cost of coronavirus treatment in private hospitals. A patient admitted to some private hospitals could pay between $600 and $1,600 per day.

Vaccination

Like many countries in Africa, Uganda’s hope of escaping from this current wave is vaccination. “The only solution to this current wave is following standard operating procedures and vaccination. We need to vaccinate a sizeable amount of the population to build herd immunity,” says Muhwezi Muhereza, secretary general of Uganda Medical Association.

Museveni has said Uganda will fully reopen after vaccinating 4.4m people.

It is a steep path. The government says it has run out of the vaccines. It received 964,000 doses received from Covax, a programme supporting low-income countries to access coronavirus vaccines. According to government statistics, a total of 869,915 people – which accounts for 90.2% of the 964,000 doses received – have been vaccinated.

Out of those vaccinated, 57,797 (6.6%) have received two doses. This is just 1.3% of 4.4million people that the government says should be vaccinated before the country can fully reopen.

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