When the Covid-19 virus first appeared in East Africa this March, the Ugandan government moved swiftly to slow its spread by imposing a nationwide shutdown and closing Uganda’s borders to all new refugees and asylum seekers fleeing regional conflict and civil war.
With more than 1.4 million refugees in crowded refugee settlements, mostly from neighbouring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 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 people 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.
Now, some five months later, Uganda has begun to lift those emergency lockdown measures. Non-essential businesses have been allowed to reopen, curfew hours have been reduced, and in late July the government removed the ban on boda boda motorcycle taxis that millions of Ugandans depend on for transportation and livelihoods. With the exception of a temporary, three-day border opening at the beginning of July to take in over 3,000 asylum seekers, mostly children, fleeing recent militia attacks on their villages in the DRC, the borders remain closed. Schools and places of worship also remain shut in an effort to minimise the number of cases.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) which has been providing family tents, water tanks, health screening areas, toilets, and handwashing facilities, as of late July there were 1,124 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Uganda; among those, 52 were refugees. UNHCR says all patients have since recovered. Ugandan and UN officials now are seeking to deal with the secondary effects of the pandemic; economic hardship, the inability to earn money, reduced food rations, an increase in alcoholism, and instances of sexual and gender-based violence during the Covid-19 lockdown. These issues, reports the UNHCR, have led to deterioration in social relations among refugees and have strained relations with the Ugandan host community.
To find out what sort of information about Covid-19 was getting through to refugees in the settlements as well as behaviours, trust, and the socio- economic impact of the virus, in late June Ground Truth Solutions (GTS) conducted a second round of phone interviews in Kiswahili and English with 101 community leaders from the ten most populous settlements of South Sudanese and Congolese refugees in Uganda. Collectively, these settlements constitute 92 percent of the country’s total refugee population.
GTS also reached out via an online survey to humanitarian staff in Uganda working for international NGOs, UN agencies, the Ugandan Red Cross, national NGOs, and the Ugandan government. Of the 54 responding, most are national staff working in protection at site-level, country offices, and sub-national offices. These aid workers as well as community leaders participating in the GTS survey confirm that the secondary effects of the pandemic are their most pressing concern and generally feel that the prevention and mitigation measures in response to Covid-19 have been relevant and appropriate and that progress is being made against the spread of the virus in their respective locations. Almost all humanitarian staff report their organisation’s programmes being affected by these measures, pointing to the pausing of travel, cessation of ‘non-essential’ activities, and pivot to remote programme management.
Some see a risk that their organisation will no longer be able to continue their work if the current restrictions remain in place.