When the first cases of the novel coronavirus outbreak were first reported in Wuhan, China, late last year, most of us did not pay attention. Our routines and travel plans went on as previously scheduled. Regina Nantege, an entrepreneur, travelled to Belgium to attend an entrepreneurship training by a Belgian non-governmental organisation that supports African entrepreneurs.
However, by the time she returned to Uganda, Belgium had been in a lockdown for five days and was on the red list.
The aircraft had stopped at Kigali Airport in Rwanda and it was there that Nantege had learned of the directive for institutional quarantine for all Ugandans returning from countries with a high number of Covid-19 cases, including Belgium.
“Although I was looking forward to returning home, I was also proud that my country was taking Covid-19 guidelines seriously,” she relates.
At Entebbe International Airport, temperatures were checked for every individual upon entry.
“After the temperature check, we were asked which countries we were coming from. When I mentioned Belgium, I was put aside for institutional quarantine. Our passports were withdrawn, which caused a lot of discomfort, especially for non-citizens,” she reveals.
Nantege and fellow passengers did not know where their luggage was. After complaining to the officials, they were allowed to go and claim their baggage and wait for transport to the hotel that would be their home for the next two weeks.
“We waited outside from about 1am to 3am for a bus to take us to the hotel. During this wait, we insisted that our passports that had not been stamped by immigrations be stamped and returned to us, which was done at about 2am,” she relates.
When they boarded the bus they were told, they were being taken to a hotel where they would be charged $100 (about Shs370,000) per night. “Most people, including myself, refused to enter the rooms. I ate a chocolate bar for supper and slept in the hotel lobby for the remaining hours of the night,” Nantege recalls her first night in quarantine.
The following morning, Nantege and her group realised there was no health team at the hotel to test and they were still not willing to pay the quarantine fee.
“That evening, Dr Henry Mwebesa, the director general health services at Ministry of Health, met the group and after hearing our complaints, he encouraged us to get rooms assuring us that government would meet the costs,” she recollects.
Nantege recalls noticing many soldiers at about 8pm, whom she later realised were escorting the team from the Ministry of Health, including the Minister, Dr Jane Aceng and the permanent secretary Dr Diana Atwine.
“Again we shared our concerns about the $100 fee. The hotel manager came and talked about an adjusted price of $55 (about Shs207,000) for bed and breakfast instead of the full board fee. I was angered by the officials who kept saying $55 is affordable. There was no way I was going to spend that much money. So, I moved out of the room I had been offered and went back to the lobby chair,” relates Nantege.
Ministry of health officials said those who could not pay for quarantine would be picked the following day and taken to a free quarantine facility. “But they did not come so I spent another night in the hotel lobby chair,” she relates.
For the days Nantege spent at the hotel, she was unable to take a shower. But when the bus finally showed up to take them to the promised free quarantine facility, she asked one of those who had taken a room to allow her use their bathroom for a shower. She notes that a few who had already checked into the hotel also checked out after clearing the bills of their stay.
“About 16 of us were shifted to Ntinda. “At 6pm, we arrived at the new quarantine facility, which turned out to be another hotel that was also charging us for accommodation. We called the Ministry of Health (MoH) official, who told the hotel manager that we were to sleep and expenses would be catered for by government,” she recounts.
During the first few days of the quarantine, they got temperature checks every two days. The hotel staff wore gloves and masks and served them food in disposable containers. They were not allowed to enter and clean the rooms to avoid the spread of Covid-19.
April 1 was the group’s fourteenth day in quarantine and they met a health worker who took nasal swabs from them.
“We were told that if all of us tested negative, we would be allowed to go home. The following day, I was called out of my room by hotel staff who said the health team needed me. I was so relieved when I was informed that they thought I had not yet taken the test and was sent back to my room,” Nantege recollects.
Three days later, no results were forthcoming, Nantege and another person started a hunger strike demanding to be given their results or released from quarantine.
“Later that day, MoH officials came to my room saying they had got a positive case on March 26, from the facility and therefore we had to stay an extra 14 days. This could mean going home on April 10. We tried to explain that we arrived on March 18, moreover on different flights (the ministry had mixed people with different arrival dates in one facility) and that we had not been exposed to them since we had stayed in our rooms at the facility,” she recounts.
They did not listen to the explanation and quarantine was extended and new tests were scheduled for April 6. “For each extra day, my family kept calling to ask when I would leave. They were anxious. I had to switch my phone off to manage the anxiety that I was living under,” she shares.
On April 7, all tests were announced negative and a letter from ministry of health indicated that all persons at the quarantine facility were to go home the following day.
“On April 8, feeling excited, I left the hotel and went for a jog. At 5pm a ministry official confirmed in the hotel corridor that we would be released. When we did not receive any further communication that night, we assumed we would be leaving the following day. I packed my bags and slept early to wake up and go home,” she shares.
However, that night, a woman who travelled from Turkey was taken from the hotel by an ambulance after testing positive. On April 9, communication was sent to the hotel, saying new tests were to be taken and quarantine was extended for 14 days. If they were all negative, then the group would be allowed to go home.
“A few friends started to send me get well soon messages thinking quarantine people are already confirmed as Covid-19 patients. The anxiety reached a level where I could not help it anymore and had to do something,” she narrates
Once again, she started a hunger strike and she was joined by eight other people. A group of counsellors was sent on the second day to talk to them out of the strike but the group refused to give in.
“They let people on the upper block of the hotel go home at about 4pm as the alleged positive case was on the lower block. But there was no country record of that description,” she says. On April 11, while still on hunger strike, MoH officials brought results for the lower block and discharged the group.
“Despite not going home on April 8 as earlier communicated, we still used test results indicating departure that date,” she reveals.
Home at last
Nantege was reunited with her family on April 11. “Going home was an Easter gift for me and my family but the biggest present was knowing that everyone I had quarantined with was safe. I do not regret taking on the quarantine as it is a good measure to keep Covid-19 out of Uganda.