Uganda’s ‘urban poor’ fear dying of hunger during COVID-19 lockdown

By John Agaba

April 17, 2020

Uganda’s stay-at-home order to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus has left some urban residents fearful they will die of hunger rather than the virus.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping the world, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has issued clear rules: stay at home unless it is an emergency. With his directive, he stopped all passenger service and private vehicles and imposed a curfew from 7 p.m. until 6:30 a.m., which effectively makes the stay at home order mandatory.

But most of Uganda’s urban residents are a hand-to-mouth lot. Literally, they live off their ability to make it to town centers every day. A slight disruption in this routine means people will go hungry at home.

The government has begun distributing maize (corn) flour and beans to vulnerable people affected by the lockdown, including child-headed families, persons living with HIV and the elderly.

But the urban poor say this is not enough.

Eunice Nabifo, a mother of three who lives in a suburb of Kampala, the nation’s capital, said she and her family have been eating maize porridge for a week now because she doesn’t have more food.

“I boil water, and when it is ready I add maize flour to make porridge. That is what we eat for breakfast and supper,” said the single mother, clutching her youngest child, a toddler, close to her chest. “There are about three kilograms left in the bag. So I don’t know what will happen after.

“We are going to die of hunger before this virus even kills us,” she added.

Nabifo is not the only one with that fear.

Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, a Member of Parliament for Kyadondo County East in Wakiso district, said the the situation “is getting worse.” Though there was hope when the government announced that it would distribute food to vulnerable people affected by the lockdown, “they are not distributing food to everyone,” he said. “They underestimated the number of people who need relief.”

“Many people do not have what to eat. Now they are coming to our [seemingly well-off] gates hoping to get food,” said Ssemujju Nganda on a popular political show, The Capital Gang. “You hear someone knocking at your gate. You go to see who it could be and it is a mother with a child strapped at her back. All she wants is food to feed her child. But we also don’t have the food.”

The situation is fast descending into one of desperation for many young people in urban centers, he said.

Kampala and the central region, which dominate urban centers, comprise almost 30 percent of Uganda’s 38 million people, according to the 2016 national household survey.

A number of politicians have called on government to relax the ban on public transport — even for a few days — to allow the urban poor to return to rural villages, which still have food. And there had been hope government would give in to this demand after the initial lockdown elapsed on April 14.

But Museveni and the taskforce that is leading the fight against the spread of the coronavirus said this was not the time to relax restrictions and extended the lockdown for an additional 21 days.

“We cannot afford to play [with this virus],” Museveni said this week. “Our scientists have done commendable work. We have been able to minimize the number of new cases. But we cannot celebrate now. We are asking everyone to please stay at his or her home and to observe all the measures we have put in place. We do not want people moving around and crowding in one place. The market people have to maintain a distance of about four metres.”

He said government extended the lockdown to May 5 to “give ourselves more time to study the situation.”

Museveni initially closed all educational institutions and banned all social, political and cultural gatherings on March 18, before the country had registered a single case. A fortnight later, after cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Uganda, he suspended public and private transport, closed international borders and instituted a curfew. Only cargo planes and trucks, as well as “essential services vehicles,” are allowed on the road.

The containment measures seem to be working.

As of April 13, the local ministry of health had tested 6,661 samples for COVID-19, with 55 cases testing positive. Eight of these cases have been discharged.

Health Minister Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng said the taskforce followed up on an additional 18,000 contacts and tested all truck drivers who came into the country via the different entry points.

“We need people to remain calm and to follow the guidelines,” Aceng said.

But the continued lockdown and restrictions are weighing heavily on a population that is largely broke and living hand-to-mouth.

Smelling a kill, middlemen are hoarding foodstuffs, which compounds the conundrum as food prices have nearly doubled.

Government has since implored persons who are well off and have extra food to share with “the less fortunate,” and Museveni has called out the dealers for hoarding and inflating food prices.

The government has instituted a committee led by Prime Minister Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda to mobilize relief donations, pool resources and distribute food to the most vulnerable.

Opposition MP Robert Kyagulanyi, who is also known as Bobi Wine, called for individual donations so Uganda’s poor can be accorded the “basics to survive.”

“We need to unite in the fight against spread of COVID-19,” Wine said on local television NBS. “Instead of imposing restrictions and threatening to charge whoever is found distributing relief food [with attempted murder], government should put in place standard SOPs [standard operating procedures] to guide the process.”

That way, Ugandans who have some extra food would be able to reach out to their needy neighbours, he said.

Ramathan Ggoobi, an economist and lecturer at Makerere University Business School, called upon government to set up a fund or to institute “another mechanism” that could bring food from villages for distribution to people in town centres at “affordable prices.”

“The middlemen are taking advantage of a bad situation, hoarding and inflating food prices,” the economist said. “We need a national mechanism that can cut them out.”

“Government does not need to give people money [to arrest the situation],” Ggoobi said. “We’ll create inflation. We still have food [in villages]. We only need an alternative system [independent of middlemen] that will bring food to town centers.”

But government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo remained buoyant in the face of the criticisms and fears and said that Museveni’s administration will provide food to everyone in need.

“Government, through the Local Councils, identified the vulnerable people who need support,” he said. “We know them. And we shall reach all of them. It is the people who go to town to get 3000 or 4000 [$0.80 to $1.06 worth of food per day] which they feed their families on that we are targeting. We shall give them relief.”

Image: Xinhua/Hajarah Nalwadda