In an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Ugandan government on March 25 imposed a government shutdown and temporarily closed the nation’s borders to all new refugees and asylum seekers fleeing regional conflict and civil war.
With already more than 1.4 million refugees in refugee settlements, mostly from neighbouring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ugandan and United Nations officials were concerned about the lack of intensive care units and ventilation equipment in the settlements and that a further influx of displaced peoples would not only exacerbate conditions for a possible outbreak but make containment measures such as social distancing more difficult to enforce. At the time there were 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Uganda.
To find out what sort of information was getting through to refugees in the settlements as well as behaviours, trust, and the economic impact of the virus, Ground Truth Solutions (GTS) in late April conducted phone interviews in Kiswahili and English with 30 community leaders from the ten most populous settlements of South Sudanese and Congolese refugees in Uganda (Adjumani, Bidibidi, Imvepi, Palorinya, Rhino, Kiryandongo Kyaka II, Kyangwali, Nakivale, and Rwamwanja).1 Collectively, these constitute 92 percent of the country’s total refugee population.
The leaders told us:
• Most refugees and asylum seekers are aware of the guidance around COVID-19 and have received information from their most trusted information sources on how to protect themselves from the virus.
• While most are abiding by the COVID-19 guidelines, refugees find it difficult to keep at a distance from others, stay home, and wear a facemask.
• Some people cannot distinguish between facts and rumours surrounding COVID-19 and may be resorting to ineffective or dangerous home remedies.
• Nearly all of those in the settlements are unable to meet their essential needs as a result of a recent 30 percent reduction in World Food Programme assistance as well as measures that have curtailed jobs and decimated incomes.
• Social relations have become increasingly strained as people are no longer able to get emotional, financial, and food support from friends and family due to social distancing and loss of income.