It was greetings and ululations of “Happy New Year 2020!” Little did we know that a mega tsunami was on its way and it would soon wreak havoc on nations, both small and mighty; leaving but fear, thousands of corpses and the smell of death.
WHO declared it the novel Covid-19 pandemic. Immediately, the adrenaline rush of self and national preservation was set in, worldwide. Washing hands, wearing face masks, social distancing and quarantine suddenly became common features of daily life. Countries closed their borders, airspaces and went into lockdown.
Entebbe airport has been closed since March 23 to all commercial passenger traffic. Like elsewhere, the announcement to close was made in good faith to delay the spread of the virus and, especially to save the lives of Ugandans.
Compared with other countries, Uganda’s performance has been excellent; and not by accident. It has been about leadership and we should be proud of President Museveni for the stewardship and a consistent message.
What then has been our experience as embassies? At the height of the pandemic in the USA, both our embassies in New York and Washington DC were in Covid-19 hotspots and the situation remains to-date. Due to safety considerations, we were advised by the US federal government of lockdowns in some locations in USA. To protect our staff, we had to close the chancery premises and make arrangements to work from home.
We were aware of the irony of shutting down consular services when they were likely to be needed most. We put what we thought were interim telephone and electronic arrangements in place, sent out consular notices and announcements and prepared to wait out the storm. The same can be said of the other Ugandan embassies abroad. The new normal, it had become.
When the 32 set-days elapsed and airports did not reopen, we started to receive distress calls from our stranded nationals. In April, we sent out a call for registration of stranded nationals.
There was a mood of anxiety, uncertainty and anticipation, which by May, had transformed into desperation. Our staff ensured that we kept open lines of communication and avoided long bouts of radio-silence.
We also ensured vigilance, alertness and responsiveness.
By June, we had registered more than 350 persons, responded to hundreds of emails and phone calls frankly almost all the time.
We started recording deaths of our nationals among the diaspora. May their souls rest in peace! To add salt to the wound, there was a halt on repatriation of human remains in place.
The spectre of the SoP Form and 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Entebbe haunted every prospective traveller and the question of how to acquire a Covid-19 test on-demand in a foreign country hang over us. Finally, we were instructed to put in place arrangements for special repatriation flights. Good news.
During one of his televised addresses to the nation, President Museveni assured the stranded Ugandans that the base had to be secured first. It was now secure. Wise leadership; the others let in their nationals in droves and, in hindsight, probably with the virus that continues to rage.
The intangible value of the decision to engage a travel expert with the capacity to solve logistical problems cannot be over-stated.
In times like these, perspectives matter. Do I think we made some mistakes? Yes, I do, but we did our utmost to satisfy our nationals. There are no perfect solutions to every problem.
At the end of the day, pandemics and repatriations are not really the sort of thing one can be completely prepared for; but we rose to our call of duty and put the interests of our people first.
The writer is ambassador of Uganda to the US