Letter from Uganda: “People will die of corona even before they get corona”

May 14, 2020 | All posts, Opinions and contributions, Relevant news and stories, Webinar blogs

By Stella Aguti, an independent researcher based in Mbale Uganda; and Ben Jones, Senior Lecturer in International Development at the University of East Anglia.

What is it like living with hypertension during the COVID19 pandemic? We spoke to Sulaiman Odongo Sulaiman a 68-year-old retired soldier living in the eastern Ugandan town of Mbale. Sulaiman has eight children and like many people of his generation has invested heavily in his children’s education. One of his sons is a medical laboratory technician. He lives with his second wife and a number of relatives, and his wife buys and sells charcoal, and Sulaiman sells water from a tap in his home. Sulaiman has no pension, as he had served in the army of Idi Amin’s government. Like many older people in Uganda is responsible for helping out younger people, while also trying to manage his own poor health.

Sulaiman’s high blood pressure has been with him for some time. In 2004 he collapsed with a stroke and spent three months in St. Martin’s Hospital in Mbale. Sulaiman manages his health carefully. The stroke has left him partially paralysed on one side, and he looks after his condition through taking medicine daily, manging his diet as best he can, as well as going along to a nearby clinic when he feels that his blood pressure is a problem. While Sulaiman sometimes suffers from malaria, he describes this as a ‘minor disease’. It is high blood pressure that has become the ‘major disease’ in his life.

Sulaiman Odongo Sulaiman in his hometown, Mbale.

We asked him about COVID19. Sulaiman told us the following:

It started from China and after that, it moved slowly up to Uganda also. So when it reached in Uganda the President addressed the country and took strict measures such as the quarantine and the lockdown. So now we are staying at home.

In fact, Uganda’s lockdown is one of the severest in Africa. Up until a recent relaxing of the rules on Monday 4 May, Uganda experienced a lockdown where all internal travel was banned, all schools, businesses and most government offices closed. There is a curfew after 7 pm, and only medical, military and police vehicles are allowed on the road. If travelling by private transport special permission must be sought. If you are found moving after 7 pm or travelling during the daytime without a permission slip, you are taken into the police station and fined.

At the time of our interview, Sulaiman told us there had been eighty-seven positive cases in Uganda fifty-two of which had been discharged. Sulaiman, like many other Ugandans, is concerned about the virus coming into the country and tells us about ‘a Kenyan driver who was brought to Mbale Referral Hospital for treatment’. There have, so far, been no coronavirus deaths in Uganda.

More troubling to Sulaiman is the lockdown:

I tell you the lockdown is not good. It will make you panic. Things are so uncertain. We don’t know how long it will be for. It is not easy to survive at this time. Most of us are poor and in town, we struggle for food. People will die.

The safety net available to most people is that of family and friends. Support from the government is very limited. Sulaiman told us that short-term borrowing from friends was one option, but this is becoming harder. Most people have little in the way of savings. As the lockdown continues the situation is becoming harder. For Sulaiman and his wife, the charcoal business has stopped, and they are left supporting relatives who are not able to go out to work. He told us: ‘people will die of corona even before they get corona’. Sulaiman wants the lockdown ended and people given the chance to find some food: ‘what I know if the government does not release people, they will die of hunger before corona comes’. Sulaiman said that he was down from three meals a day to two meals, sometimes one.

People will die of corona even before they get corona

Sulaiman is still able to go to the clinic to get medicine and a check-up. Many others in the neighbourhood who need hospital attention or a qualified doctor are in a more difficult position. The government requires permission from the office of the Resident District Commissioner if a patient needs private transport to visit a medical facility. This means many women are not going to the hospital to give birth. Added to this is the collapse of the public transport system. Those who live a long way from the hospital are unable to seek out care. Many of those on anti-retroviral treatment for HIV, for example, cannot afford to go to the hospital to get the medicines they need.

We asked Sulaiman about social distancing. He said that it was very difficult in the sort of neighbourhood he lives in. He has tried to install some hand ‘preservative’ measures for those coming to get water from his tap and puts out a basin of OMO laundry detergent for handwashing purposes. Sulaiman also spoke of how hard it was to stay inside in the cramped conditions of his two-room dwelling; how talking to his customers, sharing news and debating the virus is one of the few joys in his life at present. The water supply is on and off, and when people know the tap is working they crowd around.

As Sulaiman told us earlier that week: ‘the lockdown is working; the lockdown is not working’.

As reported to Stella Aguti and Ben Jones.