As part of our continuing series of “Pandemic Diaries”, we publish situation reports from our colleagues and correspondents all over the world. In this latest diary, we hear from Elisha Higenyi, who is a project manager for Jewish Response Uganda, a non-profit working in the area of agriculture, education, health, and sustainable living projects.
I live in Uganda within a Jewish tribe, which has existed here for 100 years. It is comprised of 200 members, who are trying to practice Orthodox Judaism. We are located around Mount Elgon, which is near the border with Kenya. As spiritual leader of the community, I teach Judaism and lead synagogue services.
During this time of Covid-19, which I can personally extend to “Covid2020”, there are many things which have happened and brought new experiences that we have never seen before. The pandemic has caused new history for people who were born since the 1980’s up to 2000.
In Uganda, in general, in early March, people started whispering of a dangerous virus, which has hit western countries, and it will soon bring a lockdown to our country. Many took it as simply rumors. As you know, living in an underdeveloped country, sometimes information takes longer to reach, and even if it reaches us, people do not take it seriously, until they see things happening themselves. On March 20th, the president addressed the nation with new presidential directives, which had never been there before in my lifetime.
The country was asked to be on lockdown, and curfew was introduced. To make matters worse, few people in the country knew what is “locking the county” and what does the word “curfew” mean. The president had to explain the terms to the people of the nation on TVs and radios, over and over: to close up all their workplaces and education sectors. Transport means and systems were closed. Airports and all business places closed. That is when people understood the word “lockdown”.
However, many people continue to break the law and directives. They go outdoors doing black market businesses, which increased the spread of the virus in parts of the country. The introduction of curfew has helped a lot to mitigate the movement of people from one place to another. When caught on the streets after night curfew, you could potentially be beaten by soldiers. When found riding or driving after curfew, they could also take your means of transportation away, and you may also pay a fine. In addition, private cars and motor bikes are not allowed to more than one person – – when two or more people are found together in the same vehicle, they are questioned about what they are doing.
All airports and borders are still closed, except now they are allowing truck drivers to cross the border with cargo. Buses and trains are still not running. We expect public transportation to be reopened some time in June.
It is frustrating that now there is no transport means allowed to operate. You find that people who live far away from the hospital have lost their beloved one during this time of pandemic – – not from the virus itself – – but lack of transport to get people to the hospital.
Tourism activities, including gorilla trekking and river rafting, are closed. Tourism is one of the biggest sources of income to the country – almost 50% of the economy of Uganda depends on tourism. At this time, there is no income coming from the tourism industry. Both wild and non-wild animals are now in game packs, roaming around parts of the country, since everyone is under lockdown. The animals started moving closely to roads and near homes of people as there are no cars and people moving around. There is no word yet as to when tourism will re-open again.
Our government and its Ministry of Health is working very hard to ensure there is no more spread. But because people have to move and look for what to eat, it is causing faster spread of the virus. And indeed, if people do not eat, hunger is going to kill more people than the virus. As the story is being narrated in Uganda: currently we have registered 246 cases, 65 healed and 0 deaths. Baruch Hashem (thank God).
In the struggle to fight the virus, people have started to become frustrated, staying at home and not working. This has mostly affected the locals living in the urban areas and rural areas as they are hand-to-month workers. A few days ago, the president extended the lockdown and curfew for another 21 days, and we do not hope for him to open when 21 days elapse.
Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once called Uganda, “The Pearl of Africa”. While 98% of Ugandans are poor, and struggling to get what they need under lock down, I still feel Churchill’s words are true. My organization, along with others, is trying to help out, but our resources are limited. We cannot help everyone. But of course, we do the best we can.