We are staring into the abyss, Let’s not blink as it stares back

Friday April 3 2020

Benjamin Rukwengye

Benjamin Rukwengye  

By Benjamin Rukwengye

There is a telling clip on social media, shot after the lockdown. A woman, probably in her late 20s, blustering because, “this disease was brought by rich people so I don’t see why we are the ones suffering”.
Once, while driving through downtown Kampala, a friend asked, “Do you ever think how you could so easily have been any of these people? How lucky you are that your life turned out different?”

We were stuck in traffic, looking at throngs of blank faces trekking past, after-work, heading to wherever they called home. We knew they’d spent all day toiling through the labours of life, in markets, taxi parks, arcades or whatever else puts food on the table. Some successfully, others not quite; tomorrow, they would try again. There has always been an “us” and a “them”.

Yet for the first time, all of us face a common enemy – the threat of death – where privilege isn’t a buffer. There is no script to how governments must respond or precedent to fall back on. Which is why we need to be more empathetic with the leadership, for they too know not what they are doing – now more than ever before.
For most governments on the continent, this pandemic is not just a health crisis. Its effect on the economy means that it poses real security/political dangers – which will inevitably take precedence. It is those three components – health, the economy and politics – that need examining, if we are to make it out of this, and continue to do well and good for everyone around us.

Lockdowns and curfews are by all means the way to flatten the curve; but beware of how the periphery plays out. The potential for civil unrest, as hunger and anxiety turn into anger and despair, is where the worry should be. The blank cheque afforded by this virus might also portend a future we’ll come to rue. Willy fellows in governments across the continent might also be experimenting with how to respond when things get ugly, as a means of survival.

Economies were never going to come out unscathed. For those already on the fringes, thoughts and prayers. Close to 20 countries around the world are using cash transfers as a response to the ravages of Covid-19. By offering basic incomes to groups such as the unemployed, the disabled, single mothers, child-headed families, informal workers, the elderly, wage earners, et al, different countries are supporting individuals and, therefore, enabling businesses to stay afloat. But also managing to go around the obvious logistical nightmares of distributing food and basic supplies.
Most have the advantage of advanced data management systems so they can track their populations down to household numbers, ages, locations, contacts, incomes, etc. Vital data for dicey times such as this. Sounds like a great idea to ensure safe distancing, but what’s that NIRA data good for? So even if we needed to transfer money, so that nobody faces charges of attempted murder, we have no data on who would receive how much, based on what criteria. How we capture and manage data can and should not stay the same after this.

When we signed the Abuja Declaration in 2001, committing that 15 per cent of our national spending would go to health, it was perhaps so that we wouldn’t need to circumvent the dysfunction in health system by spending Shs450 billion on treating government officials abroad. Or perhaps, that it wouldn’t be just the wealthiest among us, who would get access to the reported 480 Intensive Care Unit beds in the country. Another item on our to-do list.


In his poem, ‘Death the Great Equaliser’, Francis Duggan says:
“Some die of natural causes some in a tragic way;
But for every single one of us a final night and day;
Without respect for the power of wealth and without respect for fame;
Death the great equaliser treats everyone as the same.”

He might not have been referring to the threat of it, in much the same way that you probably don’t think about how you could so easily have been any of “those people”. Or how lucky you are that your life turned out different.
But, different circumstances and context, and the cards wouldn’t be what they are. Whatever you did or didn’t do to earn your privilege, if ye didn’t care before, now you must. And after we survive, even more.