Coronavirus: Where did we get it wrong?

Wednesday March 25 2020

Precaution. A worker of the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI) measures temperature at a control point at the Bole International Airport, in Addis Ababa, on March 17. AFP PHOTO

Until Saturday, March 21, Uganda did not consider United Arab Emirates (UAE) as one of the high-risk countries, yet that is where all the trouble before us has come from.

The red alert was seen only after a 36-year-old index patient presented a high temperature and subsequently tested positive for Covid-19 when he returned from Dubai, UAE, on Saturday night.

Before that, the nation had been putting on a brave resistance. But it was only a matter of when, not if, the coronavirus would breach our checks.
The announcement of eight new cases on Monday night shook sections of the public, and we ask: what could we have done better?

When the outbreak of the virus was reported in China late last year, it seemed so remote. But the virus snowballed so fast that by the end of January, Africa had started sneezing, but many did not issue restrictions on travel – both domestic and international.

In February, Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, the Health minister, revealed that a 14-day quarantine had been imposed on more than 100 people of Chinese and Ugandan origin, who came into the country from China, as a preventive measure against the deadly coronavirus disease.

With the situation worsening in the Far East, Uganda on March 6, slapped travel restrictions on seven worst hit countries, which were labelled as Category One.
The government would update the category one countries on a weekly basis.


People flying into Uganda from nine more countries worst hit by coronavirus were put under mandatory quarantine at their own cost ($1,400) for two weeks following an increase in the number of new cases registered per day and cumulative number of cases in their countries.

The affected countries included Italy, San Marino, South Korea, France, China, Germany, Spain, Belgium, USA, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Iran, Austria and Malaysia.

However, the restrictions came too late. Countries that were in lower categories quickly moved up and passengers from such countries had entered the country. The weekly ranking also created a seven-day gap, which allowed travellers from countries hit by the pandemic access Uganda without being quarantined.

President Museveni yesterday said: “The other time [we were] trying to close the borders but I think we were late by a day or two. Because that is how all these cases have come from Dubai. There was no case from here.

“If we had closed the airport two days before we would not have had these cases.
But we had to consult, send notice according to international law and we had to do our own internal consultation, Cabinet on Monday and Church on Tuesday.
We started moving on Wednesday and at the time we had not thought of closing the airport but eventually we were forced”.

Mr Vianney Lugya, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) spokesperson, on Monday told this newspaper that many travellers from Category One countries were cleared at the airport between Friday and Saturday.

“I don’t know where those travellers are but they were many. The planes were full to capacity and the travellers were coming from Category One countries,” Mr Lugya said.
Those who entered were mostly Ugandans, according to Mr Lugya.

There have also been loopholes in the process of quarantining and isolation.
When government started quarantining the arrivals at different entry points, it started with self-isolation without close supervision by health personnel and security officials for compliance. This exposed the flaws in the management of suspected cases.

It eventually took government weeks to finally declare mandatory isolation when it became apparent that Uganda had a problem on her hands.
On the day the first case was confirmed at Entebbe airport, another 84 passengers who were on the same plane were allowed to walk away without quarantining or isolation.

President Museveni yesterday admitted this laxity.
“When the first test came in, one of them was negative and this doctor who was on duty made a mistake and asked them to leave because they were negative.

But when the other samples came in, they were positive. These asked where the people were and the doctor said he had sent them away. They have all been traced- the five. The first one plus the four others are at Entebbe Hospital. There is another one in Masaka, two who are being brought back from Kayunga. And one has been identified in Makindye,” he said yesterday.

“They have been identified. But that means they have been mixing with some people. They had interfaced with some people in town. But this is the work of surveillance teams. To identify all the people they ever interacted with and contact them and check them. There are other samples being checked. Up to now the confirmed ones are nine,” he added.

A Ugandan woman, who on Saturday had travelled from one of the East African countries, yesterday disclosed to this newspaper from her quarantine that the process was flawed.

“After clearing about six or 10 people, a lady from Immigration department came and said we were not supposed to be cleared. They took our passports and bundled us together in six costa shuttles and dumped as at Katomi Hotel,” she said.
She said they were lumped up together with passengers from Category One countries without screening.

“These officials who escorted us were arrogant and when we tried to inquire why we were being brought to this place without testing, they threatened us. We kept quiet but after a short time, we saw cars coming to pick some officials whom we were told were UN officials, then other vehicles kept on picking up some people we suspect to be big government officials, but for us, we were dumped at the hotel,” she said yesterday.

Together with a few others, they have since been staying at Douglas Villa in Kikoni, Makerere, and she says they have never been tested and are allowed to mix freely.

Journalist Jimmy Spire Ssentongo told NTV on Monday night that while they were quarantined at Central Inn in Entebbe, there were no health workers to attend to them and no safety measures for the quarantined people.

There were revelations availed to this newspaper on Monday evening that some of the suspects who were in quarantine in Kikoni had duped security at the airport and retrieved their passports.

The aviation security commander is said to have asked members of his staff to self-isolate after the incident.
Some government officials have also been accused of frustrating the process.

The New Vision last week quoted Dr Aceng, during a corporate sector discussion on coronavirus, as saying big shots in government were not adhering to the quarantine guidelines.

“I got so pained when the surveillance officers said they went to check on a very high-level person who was quarantined and found him at a shopping mall. How much do we have to talk for people to understand the gravity of the matter?” Dr Aceng was quoted.
She also expressed displeasure over several businesspeople who were defying screening at the airport.

“They [business people] claim that the health workers are touching them with dirty gloves,” she said.
This newspaper has also not independently verified reports that many Ugandans who travelled through the VIP section at the airport were not quarantined and that government officials aided the release of their relatives or friends from quarantine.

The hubs
Perhaps one of the most ignored aspects in categorising countries was the airport most used by Ugandans.
Majority of travellers exit the country through Dubai International Airport, Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, The Netherlands.

Save for Schipol, which was under Category One, the rest of the travellers from the three busy airports were not affected yet they spend several hours on transit at the airports and could get exposed to infections.

Dubai, for instance, is the world’s busiest airport by international passenger traffic, the fifth-busiest airport in the world by passenger traffic and the sixth-busiest cargo airport in the world.

According to the international flight data, it handled 88 million passengers and 2.65 million tonnes of cargo and registered 409,493 aircraft movement in 2017.
Mr Lugya said in the entire month of March, a total of 5,134 direct arrivals came from Dubai, with some on connecting flights.

He said from March 20, to March 22, when Uganda witnessed a surge in the confirmed cases, there were 543 direct flight arriving passengers from Dubai to Entebbe.
He, however, added that a number of those who arrived this month, especially non-nationals, have since departed.

Asked to explain how people who travelled together with a confirmed case were allowed to pass without being tested, Dr Diana Atwine, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Health, said they could not hold everyone at the airport because the place would be too congested.

“[The] airport was extremely crowded and it is difficult to keep people in one crowded place. We tried to move as many people from the airport as quickly [as possible], so this person had to be tested from aside. By the time we completed testing him, other people had already moved, but most of the passengers were not coming from highly affected countries and it was not possible to quarantine everybody from that plane,” she said.

All the nine cases Uganda has registered came from UAE.
Dr Aceng, however, said she did not know the number of people who had returned.

Deportation claims

Ugandans thrown out? There have been claims since Saturday – many of them on social media – that the UAE had deported more than 450 Ugandans who are infected with Covid-19. In some districts across the country, there have been reports of police tracing such suspects but without success.

Mr Henry Okello-Oryem, the Minister of State for International Affairs, however, said no Ugandan was deported.

“At Entebbe airport, every single traveller is checked. So at least one would have been found positive if it was true they were deported,” he said.

Dr Joyce Moriku, the Minister of State for Primary Healthcare, said the ministry was going to verify.
Mr Yusuf Kimera, the secretary general of the Association of Ugandans in United Arab Emirates, however, said he could not determine the number of those who left by press time.

“We see media reports of Ugandans who have been taken back by their companies due to the pandemic, but we are yet to establish the facts, because the community leaders and the embassy in Abu Dhabi have not received any official complaint from the victims, so that is just a rumor at the moment,” Mr Kimera said.

Compiled by Franklin Draku, Tony Abet, Nobert Atukunda, Patience Ahimbisibwe, Arthor Arnold Wadero & Allan Chekwech