The new coronavirus pandemic has entered the most dangerous phase. This is the period of complacency, where human greed, impatience and the desire for the easy way trump the need for maximal defences against this dangerous virus.
Our pleasure-seeking nature finds the inconvenience of lockdowns, physical distancing and other prevention measures more unbearable than the risk of contracting the disease or unknowingly passing it on to a vulnerable person. We become desensitised to danger and assume a confident gait as we walk into a dark hole whose roadmap we know not.
Just seven months after the virus began its assault on humanity, we are acting as though we have been deprived of a purpose to live for. Unlike people who have endured prolonged and bloody wars that have completely turned their lives into hellish experiences, we are whining about our inability to meet in churches, to attend weddings and funerals in the usual numbers or to enjoy life-preserving frolicking at the beaches, bars and such.
I am told that Ugandans have simply ignored the measures decreed by their government. They have unilaterally extended the curfew to 10pm and beyond. Boda bodas are transporting passengers.
Large family birthday parties and other celebrations have resumed. It is business as usual in crowded places like Kampala’s Kikuubo market, complete with mask-free faces and intimate shopping experiences. Ugandans have silently declared a post-Covid period.
Then there is the truly unbelievable rejection or misuse of facemasks. A friend in Kampala assured me over the weekend that people were actually obeying the decree on masks in public places.
Many women carry them in their purses, he said, just in case the police ask. The men prefer to wear them like necklaces, ready to pull them to their faces upon sighting the police.
As if that was not bad enough, Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, the Minister of Health, has joined the citizens on their mass suicide mission. In the process, she has reversed the gains that she and her president had made in the fight against Covid-19.
Yes, Dr Aceng whose star shone bright in the early days of the fight against the virus! The lady whose calm professionalism, the confidence of a well-read scientist, and serious adherence to the recommendations of the WHO had induced hope that prosecution of the war was under safe command.
Dr Aceng had easily earned my admiration and vote of confidence. Then, in three inexplicable acts of self-destruction, Dr Aceng poured water onto the bright candle that she had become. First, she decided to seek election as a Member of Parliament.
Why a senior medical doctor, her star shining bright at the top of the Ministry of Health, with the backing of the President, would want to get into the mud wrestling of elective politics, is perplexing.
What is it that she cannot do as an unelected minister of Health that she can do as an MP?
Second, the decision to seek election to Parliament, compelled her to embark on a vote-buying exercise, not yet with cash, but with distribution of Covid-related goodies like food and masks. A job that ought to be done by clerks and other lower level workers became the responsibility of the Minister of Health.
Third, this need to interact with potential voters dulled and altered her professional knowledge and practice, leading her to commit the mother of all errors of judgment.
On Friday, July 10, Dr Aceng, specialist paediatrician and public health expert, chief architect of a mandatory policy of wearing facial masks in public, eloquent spokesperson for the Tonsemberera (keep your distance) campaign, she who threatened Ugandans with a new lockdown because they were “not following preventive measures,” abandoned her mask and physical distancing.
Her meeting with a large crowd of people in Aromo Sub-county, Lango, where she intends to seek election to Parliament, was captured by still and video cameras for the world to see. The Minister of Health with no mask, in a large crowd that preferred physical huddling to physical distancing! A better poster for how to increase risks to self and to others would be very hard to find.
With public displeasure about her conduct hitting the social media, Dr Aceng chose the Donald Trump approach of no apologies and unbelievable pretence that what we saw in the photos and video was not real.
She issued a statement in which she claimed that she had taken the time to educate the youth about physical distancing and the use of masks. Then she signed off her missive with a self-indictment that a good public relations adviser would have considered an absolute no, no.
“I continue to appeal to you all to wear your masks, maintain social distance and wash your hands with soap regularly to prevent Covid-19,” Dr Aceng ended her statement.
Where a simple apology for poor judgment would have been the obvious step, Dr Aceng dug her hole deeper and extinguished the flickering light of hope that we had.
Instead of being remorseful about her very obvious recklessness, she chose the “do as I say, not as I do” approach of the arrogant politicians who never disguise their contempt for lesser mortals. In so doing, she wrote off the great work she had done and undermined the trust that she had gained over the last four months.
I believe that Dr Aceng did a good job during the difficult stages of the pandemic when the whole world was still swimming in the dark. I think she has a lot to contribute to our country’s healthcare services.
While I forgive her for her terrible error of judgment, for she is only human, I find that her explanation falls below the minimum standards we expect from a doctor, who has erred in the course of duty.
So, I urge her to do the right thing and resign her position as minister of Health. To do so will be painful in the short-term. However, a salvaged reputation as a woman of integrity is worth the loss of a ministerial assignment. To insist on staying in office will likely empower Ugandans in their reckless life in their post-Covid illusion.