Seated in her grass thatched hut, in an unusually quiet village of Omugo, Arua District, Ms Jessica Juru is lost in thought. Besides her is Daniel Wani, one of her seven children who is engrossed in his Science textbook.
His other siblings are scattered redundantly. They are later drawn to the attention of their other sibling, Samuel Muloka, 9, who is isolated in the shade, enjoying music on his old radio.
“They are here all the time since schools were ordered to close and they can’t go out to play with their age mates.
They run around the compound, dance sometimes, and when they are tired, they catch a nap,” Ms Juru says.
The news about the outbreak of coronavirus has not left her the same. Ms Juru is one of the refugees in Omugo Extension settlement Refugee Camp, an extension of Rhino Camp Refugee Resettlement Centre in Arua.
It was opened in 2017 to cater for the overwhelming number of new arrivals from South Sudan at the time. It currently hosts 39,544 refugees.
“I felt strange when I heard of a new disease outbreak in the world, and that it had come to Uganda,” she says.
She heard the news on a neighbour’s radio that the country was to go under lockdown with limited movements, trade and other activities.
She had earlier been advised by her friend to buy a book for Wani to catch up with the curriculum. When schools closed, the book came in handy.
Ms Juru’s husband is stuck in South Sudan where he used to dig and cross back with some cassava for his family.
“From the food he would bring, we would eat some and sell the rest to get some money. I now have to fend for the children single handedly,” she says.
Like this family, more than 1.3 million people in refugee settlements are faced with some of the biggest fears of their lives.
Just when they thought they were safe, they are more worried about the pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people worldwide.
World Vision, a charity agency, warns that mortality rates for Covid-19 are unprecedented in vulnerable communities such as refugee settlements.
They recommend that countries hosting a high number of refugees need special and urgent support because the impact coronavirus will have on these countries is likely to be far greater.
According to United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR), some 53,000 refugee children are at risk. Majority of these are psychosocially disturbed by war.
Such children benefit a lot from play and psycho-social services that are offered at the various child friendly spaces in the settlement. They are also attend Early Childhood Development.
More than 30,000 children access these facilities regularly. But following the directive to close schools, these facilities were also affected.
“The disease might not kill as many children but the impact on them is great... We train and facilitate foster parents to take care of these vulnerable children. This is now difficult because everyone is scared and they only want to take care of their own without any extra responsibility,” Ms Brenda Madrara, a project manager at World Vision, says.
“This push back from the parents is majorly because of the increased pressure on livelihoods and basic needs, including food, but also the fear of bringing someone that might be infected,” she adds.
Mr Peter Aringu Peter, the chairperson South Sudanese’s Refugees Association, says they have always viewed Uganda as their second home although they are faced with land challenges to avert hunger.
“Refugees are already vulnerable and lack land for cultivation. Besides land, they are financially incapacitated that they cannot travel up to food distribution centres to get food relief supplied by WFP because they are very far. The elderly and pregnant mothers are majorly affected,” he says.
Ms Grace Akuol, a refugee in Zone II in Omugo settlement, says: “We are scared of hunger because currently, the rain is inadequate for us to grow some short-term crops. But we hope some organisations can come to our rescue because WFP has cut food aid. Our major worry is children and mothers who need to feed well.”
According to UNHCR, Omugo extension settlement covers 5.4 square kilometres and is largely for residential and agricultural use.
The Food and Agricultural Organisation in conjunction with Naro’s Abi Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute in Arua and Muni University have been engaging the refugee and host communities to use the land to plant short term crops using modern technologies to avert any hunger.
DanChurchAid, an NGO, has also extended some relief to vulnerable communities. “We will be giving out some essential items to health centres in the settlements both in Arua and Lamwo districts. We will also work with WFP to give out cash of about 140,380 to 2,200 individuals,” Mr Jimmy Nyeko, a project manager at DanChurchAid, says.
Uganda’s accommodative refugee policy allows refugees to move freely and take part in businesses, trade and farming. Most of the markets in the camps are run by refugees but only a few that sell food and other essential products are open.
“We used to buy merchandise at Kobala, but movement is not allowed, so we have to buy from around, which reduces the profit. People are not there in the market, there is no business at all. Survival is now hard because I have to buy soap and sauce for the children,” Ms Paibe Juwa, who works in one of the markets, says.
In April, the World Food Programme announced a 30 per cent reduction on food rations for all refugees. Refugees would sell part of this food to buy soap or an alternative sauce or get money to grind the maize grain.
The Office of the Prime Minister is working with aid partners to respond to the urgent needs in the camp.
“We have so far received soap for the households and other hygiene equipment for health centres. We are making sure that refugees still access all the services entitled to them including food, water, and healthcare, and we do all these while observing the set government guidelines on social distancing,” Mr Nicholas Tayeebwa, the assistant settlement commandant of Omugo Refugee Settlement, says.
Awareness in refugee camps
With limited access to radio, television, newspapers, internet, and the impediment of language barrier, sharing vital information in the settlement remains a big challenge. Agencies have now resorted to door-to-door awareness across all settlements, using mobile public address systems and megaphones.They are also working with children ambassadors and child protection committee members from the community to disseminate the messages.
There are 75 cases of Covid-19 in Uganda and in a bid to keep up the fight against the spread of the virus, government announced that the lockdown would be extended for another 21 days up to May 5. There was one confirmed case in Adjumani District which hosts 15 per cent of the refugee population in Uganda but the patient has since recovered and reunited with the family. West Nile has five settlement camps in Arua, Yumbe and Adjumani.
The camps include Palaronyo, Bidibiri and Omugo.
Additional reporting by Felix Warom Okello