Covid-19 and Uganda’s looming political crisis

Sunday June 27 2021
pp02pix

A near-empty street in downtown Kampala after President Museveni announced a nationwide lockdown following the surge Covid-19 cases. PHOTO | RACHEL MABALA

By Timothy Kalyegira

Few things are as good at laying bare a country’s capabilities and levels of organisation than the way it handles public health emergencies.

SARS-CoV-2, or Covid-19, has at last finally arrived in Uganda. What is being termed the second wave in Uganda is, in real terms, the first, true wave.

Last year, Covid-19 deaths were to most people abstract figures published by the Ministry of Health in its daily updates.
Today, the situation is beginning to feel like the Aids crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in which the deaths of relatives, office colleagues, friends, neighbours and former classmates brought home the tragedy to us.

Even with the number of Covid-19 infections across Africa still negligible by international standards, Western media and government officials were already expressing alarm about Africa.

Africa’s elite found this both puzzling and offensive: Why should North America and Europe, which were in the grip of Covid-19 be more worried about Africa than their own countries?

True wave
Now that the pandemic has embarked on its first true wave in Uganda, the early concerns raised in America and Europe begin to make sense.

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The West had correctly foreseen that Covid-19, tragic as the number of infections and deaths might be, is mostly a public health emergency in Europe while in Africa it’s the kind of pandemic that can lead to or expose state collapse.

Western analysts also correctly foresaw that the struggle to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic by countries such as Uganda would inevitably become the responsibility of the West, via the International Monetary Fund or individual Western governments.

Uganda is facing a major stress test and is struggling to cope. The economic and societal stress being felt across the land during this latest lockdown is slowly turning into a political crisis.

Not necessarily a political crisis in the sense of massive street demonstrations or one of an ungovernable state.
It is, still, a crisis of confidence in the government, including in the three regions of Uganda – eastern, northern, and western – that voted for President Museveni and the NRM in January.

For the last 35 years, the NRM government had it relatively easy. It did not require much technical management to revive the economy.
Just for internal security to return to most of the country in the late 1980s was enough for several pockets of the economy such as construction and basic factory production to resume or grow.

The country’s need of essential, basic commodities in the late 1980s was so urgent and desperate, Uganda’s factory output did not need to be of a high quality either.

Anything produced, in whatever quality, brought much-needed relief. Maintaining the peace, opening up the economy to free market forces, and courting significant foreign direct investment were the main cornerstones of the 1990 to 2020 growth period.
The government could be absent from the day-to-day lives of most Ugandans, but the country would still function because the government’s role in the economy had been taken over by the market.

Most Uganda government data, reports and the President’s own annual addresses to the nation tend to dwell on the macro picture – the GDP growth rate, the number of factories built since 1986, new health centres built, inflation kept under control and so forth.
However, life of citizens is lived not in the compound GDP data, but in personal moments and experiences.

These personal moments include visits to hospitals, health centres, applying for official documents, public sanitation, filing crime reports at police stations, processing trade licences, job applications and matters like that.

And in these personal moments and experiences, the NRM government along with most African governments is noticeably weak on the ground.
The weakness is in full display in the government’s haphazard response to both the medical and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The NRM government is at its best in delivering the general, such as internal security; but it is at its most incompetent when it comes to the particulars that matter most in the private lives of its citizens.
From the President to the Prime Minister and LC5 chairpersons, the government seems to improvise as it goes along.

For example, Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja last week said one way the government will determine which vulnerable categories to send money to will be to study the transactional records.
Ordinary Ugandans quickly responded by pointing out that their mobile phones are often as much cash accounts as transfer nodes.

A boda boda man might receive Shs300,000 to pass on to a sick relative and so if his transaction history is taken at face value, it will give a false impression that he is not financially vulnerable.

From the mood on social media networks to phone calls into local radio stations all over the country, it is clear that Ugandans have very little faith in their government in as far as service delivery is concerned.

Most Ugandans don’t believe the government will deliver food or money to the population during this second lockdown.
The World Bank in its annual ranking of countries according to the ease of doing business published in December 2020, placed Uganda at No. 116 out of 190 countries.

The categories measured by the World Bank include 1) Starting a business 2) Dealing with construction permits 3) Getting electricity 4) Registering property 5) Getting credit 6) Protecting minority investors 7) Paying taxes 8) Trading across borders 9) Enforcing contracts and 10) Resolving insolvency.

These 10 World Bank categories are a more accurate measure of a country than the nominal GDP growth figures published by the Uganda government, because they show the country as it actually operates, not just how it grows.

However, the World Bank’s categorisation is limited because it focuses on the formal economy of documentation, contracts, licenses and registration.

Most of Uganda’s economy is informal and subsistence, and so most of the pain points experienced by the population are much more personal, unlike the World Bank’s 10-category measurement.

If I were to volunteer a few more for Uganda, I would add 11) The process and efficiency of police crime investigations 12) The ability of the State to deliver food, medicine and other emergency supplies to every homestead in the country 13) The ability to enforce government directives 14) The ability of the government to publish reports from across the country and 15) The ability of customer care departments in all government ministries, agencies and private business corporations to respond to the public’s inquires, emergencies and complaints.

These last five are, to me, the weakest links in Uganda the nation-State.
With infection rates rising alarmingly over the past month, the government had no choice but to announce an immediate national lockdown on June 18.

As a policy, government has responded to Covid-19 in the right, consistent and sensible way. But the suddenness of the latest lockdown caught the public unawares.

Uganda is not the kind of society in which systems work smoothly and can adjust at short notice. Almost everything is mechanical, physical and bound up in geography.  We saw this when schools were abruptly closed and all of a sudden, the country had a major crisis on its hands, with thousands of school children stranded at taxi and bus parks.

Moving goods from one part of Mbale to another or from one division in Kampala requires time and money.
Traders had no time to go to shopping malls and retrieve some of their stock. People with money in banks had no time to withdraw what they could.

Desperate vendors
Since there were no immediate relief measures in place, desperate vendors in Kampala have taken the risk of going to the retail hubs in town and are being forcibly turned back home by the police.
In the meantime, we are starting to come face-to-face with the true cost of treating Covid-19 patients.

With bills running into the tens of millions, the treatment of Covid-19 patients is wiping out the entire financial savings of middle-class families. Even if the NSSF were to give employees all their life savings with the Fund, two short weeks of admission in a Kampala hospital for Covid-19 are enough for most to use up the money.

What the 2020 lockdown and the latest lockdown have done is reveal the true state of the nation Uganda. It doesn’t take much for Uganda to lose 30 years of GDP growth. It doesn’t take much for the middle-class to slide back into a hand-to-mouth existence.

It doesn’t take much to show just how weak are the newly-created districts or to prove that the recently-created half a dozen cities such as Mbarara, Soroti and Gulu are still little more than sleepy towns.
It doesn’t take much to show that an 80-member Cabinet or a 500-member Parliament are of little effect in the face of a complex pandemic such as Covid-19.

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