Uganda’s Covid beauty contest, and Museveni’s white shirts

Wednesday June 3 2020


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

On May 31, Uganda’s official Covid-19 statistics offered up the confirmed cases as 457. If you looked at other data, from the World Health Organisation (WHO) for example, it was 539.

Many who are not closely tuned into how different countries are playing Covid-19 politics, would be confused with the disparity, wondering which figure is correct.

Ugandans at home will know that the figures were massaged after the intervention of President Yoweri Museveni. Uganda deducted, and is no longer adding to the national coronavirus count, foreign long-distance truckers who test positive, no matter how deep they are inside Uganda, and are sent back to their countries as Covid-19 deportees.

You can hand back a Kenyan or Tanzanian, but it is not clear how you do that with an Eritrean or Burundian trucker, since we don’t share a border with either country, and they aren’t being put on flights home (meaning that is a falsehood).

The effect is that in an environment where some were already questioning Uganda’s once rather rosy Covid-19 picture, this tweaking is reason not to trust any of the infection figures government health agencies issue, because, “what else are they editing from the numbers?” As someone put it, “Museveni, his white shirt and his whitewashing”.

It is also a kind of medical neo-Nazism, in which the “others” are more diseased than Ugandans. And it seems to have some public support, since quite a few ordinary folks were already calling for truckers “who are bringing corona” to be banished from the country. One understands the warped nationalism at play.


To some countries, and in this region Uganda, is the best example of it, the coronavirus incidence has become a beauty contest. If you have fewer cases, you presume yourself to be more beautiful, better, than those who have more cases.

You see across the region, officials giving Covid-19 updates breaking it down, emphasising how many are Ugandan, Kenyan, Tanzanian, Eritrean, Rwandan, Burundian, or Congolese truck drivers.

When President Museveni delivers his corona missives, he goes into detail, about a Ugandan who tested positive after he returned from for a funeral in Kisumu. At the start of the outbreak, there was great effort all around to underscore how the Ugandans testing positive were “from Dubai”.

The official statements will say the South Sudan truckers came in “via Elegu point of entry”, and the Tanzanians from “Mutukula point entry”, creating a sense of disease carriers descending upon the country from the borders.

What is harder to see beyond the pageant is the practical medical or economic value of all this. After all, there is no high rooftop in Uganda where Museveni hasn’t stood to proclaim the pan-Africanism of his government, and derided these “little unviable” countries of ours, that should be swept away by an East African federation and even greater.

The boasts about infrastructure to enable East African trade, and integrate the East African, nay, African, economies are endless. The calls for foreign investors couldn’t be louder, nor the justifications for why they should get better treatment than their Ugandan competitors be more vociferous. Yet as soon as the actors in vaunted drama test positive, we don’t want to know them.

To his credit, the President has resisted a total shut down on foreign trucks, saying they are the means by which we import and export and keep the economy alive. What he has problems with are the truckers.

It is like loving the dance, but hating the dancer. It is problematic. A Kenyan trucker who tests positive in Masaka tells us many important things. To begin with, that he might have infected some people around there. It doesn’t make sense to chase him away but keep his virus.

More importantly, it measures our integration into the East African economy, and the cost of doing business in a wider market and geography than our small towns and villages. Accountants will always ask for your expenses/costs if you want them to give you an income statement. They will not draw it just from revenues.

From a policy point of view, these infections give a picture of how and where to build the medical infrastructure that can help combat the disease spread patterns that come with regional trade. That is a problem to solve, not to fan coronavirus xenophobia around.

Finally, this corona beauty contest is delusional. All over the world, the countries that have low figures didn’t invent a magical treatment or vaccine. Some were lucky, but the best ones really just hid away better from the virus. I for one continue to hide, wear masks, gloves, and endlessly sanitise. I would be a fool to claim that any of that is a great act of scientific ingenuity, or makes me more handsome than the next guy.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist,
writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3