Did government get it wrong on Covid-19 relief food?

A woman carries a bag of flour donated by Sun Belt Mining Group in Nanyidik village, Rupa Sub-county in Moroto District on April 21, 2020 as part of the efforts to feed vulnerable communities during the lockdown occasioned by Covid-19. The sub-region is one of the areas hit hardest by hunger due to unpredictable weather patterns. PHOTO BY LEONARD MUKOOLI

What you need to know:

  • The United Nations Foods and Agriculture Orgnisation says Karamoja, Teso, parts of West Nile and Acholi sub-regions are some of the regions with high food insecurity

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has disrupted economic activities across the country, with many people forced out of work and several failing to provide basic needs for their families.
When Uganda reported its first case last month, government banned all public gatherings, closed schools and other education institutions, churches and mosques, and eventually President Museveni announced a lockdown initially for 14 days and later for another 21 days.

The lockdown has rendered many people jobless because their daily activities that provided food to their families were stopped. Commercial motorcycle riders, taxi operators, vendors and a number of other small businesses were hit not only in Kampala, but across the country.

Government therefore announced measures to distribute relief food to distressed and vulnerable members of the population. However, people especially those in the countryside have complained that the relief food would not reach them.
This, despite the recent poverty indicator figures showing that, the people the president is offering relief to are better off than their upcountry counterparts. He said the relief food was not a poverty alleviation programme, but was intended to save lives of those who were rendered jobless and could not feed their families.

Poverty report
The 2016/2017 Uganda National Household Survey by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics indicates that the number of poor people in the country increased from 6.6 million in 2012/2013 to 10 million in 2016/2017.
At the sub-regional level, the survey cites the worst hit regions as Karamoja, with 61 per cent of the people categorised as income poor, followed by Bukedi with 48 per cent and Busoga with 42 per cent.
The 2016/2017 World Bank Uganda Poverty Assessment report also indicated that the proportion of the total number of poor people who live in the northern and eastern regions increased between 2006 and 2013, from 68 per cent to 84 per cent and has continued to increase in the recent times.

The United Nations Foods and Agriculture Orgnisation says Karamoja, Teso, parts of West Nile and Acholi sub-regions are some of the regions with high food insecurity.
Ordinarily, this would mean that such regions are at most risk during the lockdown. However, President Museveni had a different perspective. He said the people in countryside have been feeding themselves before Covid-19 and therefore no relief supplies will be extended to them.

“If you were poor before the lockdown, you’ll be poor after the lockdown. Eat what you were eating before...we shall deal with your poverty later,” Mr Museveni was quoted as saying.
His assertion was rejected by Parliament that demanded that food distribution should be done across the entire country, a move that was ignored by the executive.
The Parliament that had projected itself as the voice of Ugandans soon entered into the fray of sharing the Covid-19 loot, with each MP walking away Shs20m richer, while the people they represent starve.

Many entities have, however, responded by distributing food and other basic necessities to the affected communities across the country. However, President Museveni banned such distributions and ordered police to charge people found distributing food and other commodities to needy people with attempted murder.
The President asked people to donate such items to the national taskforce. However, the distribution of the relief items is only targeting Kampala and Wakiso districts.
Mr Patrick Amuriat Oboi, the Opposition Forum for Democratic Change president, said government should stop the attitude of doing it alone, but engage different stakeholders.

“But also serious measures must be put in place to improve on the food procurement including quality and distribution and strictly deal with thieving officials who are out to enrich themselves at the expense of the suffering Ugandans who continue to wallow in hunger and anger.
“We advise Ugandans not to die of starvation silently in their homes but to continue demanding for food and other relief items from Mr Museveni. It is important that all people stand up to demand for a share of their taxes through food relief and other necessary items,” Mr Amuriat said.

The Uganda local government association president, Mr George Mutabazi, said while government gesture is good, it should not only be limited to Kampala and Wakiso.
“We support what the government has started in Kampala and Wakiso by helping those in need whose income has been affected. However, we expect that when government has finished with them, they should then come to the towns upcountry because we also have many people in these towns whose lives have been affected by the lockdown,” Mr Mutabazi said.

“We also have elders and people who are very vulnerable and government must come to support these because they have nothing and people who would have helped them are also affected,” he added.
He also tasked local governments not to only wait for the central government, but take own initiatives to support their suffering people.
“Local government should also start strategising on how to help our own people. We shouldn’t all be waiting for the government. Can we ask those in the villages who have food to support the people in towns who do not have any garden and have been affected?” he questioned.

Mr Musa Ecweru, the State minister for relief and disaster preparedness, said they are moving in phases.
“We will do first phase, that covers Kampala and Wakiso with a population of about 1.5 million people who need food relief. When we have finished with these people then we shall present our report to our leaders and say this is what we have managed to do and what do we do next, that’s why we want to wrap up the process very first,’ he said.

While some slum areas in Kampala have received the relief food, a number of other areas within the city and Wakiso are yet to receive the government donations.
Some people say the food they were given cannot take them through to next month.
In response Mr Ecweru said: “I don’t want to deceive the people that those who received the food yesterday or the other will be given another food when they have finished theirs because there are also hand to mouth people outside Kampala who have not yet received anything and are asking when are you reaching us and for them to hear that we have gone back those who have already spent what was given to them will be unfair.”
“…. there are those who have carelessly sold off part of their food for which I was very disappointed. Twenty one days is not short and if you get this food and you recklessly sell it off maybe for drinking, you will bear the burden,” he added.

The sick need food
Mr Musa Ecweru, the State minister for relief and disaster preparedness, also said government has extended relief food supplies to all hospitals across the country and the children suffering from nodding syndrome in Acholi Sub-region.
Mr Ecweru He said government has already delivered food to regional referral hospitals from where other hospitals will receive their shares.
“…. Then I might despatch some food either today or tomorrow to tackle the nodding children of Acholi Sub-region because that is another category that cannot wait and we can’t debate on that,” he said.

Challenges solved. Mr Ecweru said after initial challenges with suppliers who were supplying substandard beans, the situation has since improved with new suppliers.
“… I also had changes with the leadership of my accounting officers when some were arrested, now that has also been streamlined and things are moving on well. UNBS which was also kind of delaying the analysis has now pitched camp in my stores. It’s now not like they take the samples to their offices, they now have mobile labs where they test the supplies from the stores,” he said.