My gardener, Emmanuel, returned a few days ago after a five-month hiatus. One of the conditions for his return was that he needed to be vaccinated. He comes from Karamoja in the north-eastern part of Uganda, where the vaccine uptake was low, so he was able to get vaccinated.
I first thought that he was fibbing, as many Ugandans are prone to do when they get fake documents in order to get a pass. I checked his card and confirmed he had a genuine vaccination card. He told me that his whole family had been vaccinated.
On the other hand, Annet, my live-in housekeeper, has resisted getting the vaccine – always weaving new stories of why she cannot get it. First it was that only adults over 50 were allowed the vaccine. Today, it is only teachers and other essential workers are getting immunised. I have stopped cajoling her to get vaccinated, although I still share with her the vaccine schedules and centres whenever I get the updates.
Both Emmanuel and Annet are representative of the current Ugandan landscape: one part eager to be vaccinated, and observing the relevant restrictions and procedures; and the other side, if not anti-vaccine, coming up with excuses for not taking it.
While some Ugandans have been able to access the vaccine, and others have been offered it but not taken it up, doses are overall in short supply.
Ugandans watched in disbelief as the western countries hoarded their own vaccines, denying millions of doses to countries across Africa in dire need.
Uganda has only been able to administer 1.3m doses – about 3% of the population. In June this year, when President Yoweri Museveni ordered a 42-day lockdown at the peak of the second wave, the country had very few vaccines. During the first wave, the country seemed to have handled the pandemic very well; but we seem to have thumped our chests too fast.
By the time we were sent into the June lockdown, the gaping holes in our health system came to haunt us. While we have always complained about the poor state of the hospitals and the lack of investment, the pandemic ripped the sticking plaster off our health sector. Those of us able to access private healthcare did not raise our voices enough for better state-run health facilities.
The second wave hit the country like a hurricane. Each day, I would receive word of colleagues and friends dying, or losing loved ones. Hospitals both private and public struggled to accommodate the rising number of patients who needed intensive care. Typical ICU medical costs average £24,000, which few Ugandans could afford. We set up harambees (fundraising events) to help families affected, and kept praying that our own would be spared. We spent a lot of on herbal remedies, such as the breakthrough “wonder” herbal drug, Covidex, whose prices spiralled out of control.
I heard so many stories of people selling their properties to meet the hospital costs of their loved ones. A young man I was told about had sold his car, spent all his savings, and gone into debt to meet the rising costs of his mother’s hospitalisation. He was now looking to sell off his land. Many families put out calls for contributions, because the private health facilities held on to their loved ones’ bodies until the bill was paid or a payment plan agreed.
During all this, we were asking about access to vaccines. The western world’s hoarding had left Africa on its knees. The economic hit caused by the pandemic meant that many African countries, including Uganda, were unable to buy vaccines even through the global Covax programme. They had to rely on the paltry donations from western countries. With a population of more than 43 million, and with so few vaccinated, it means that Uganda will continue to have constant lockdowns, which will continue to have drastic economic impacts.
Last month Britain sent 299,520 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Uganda as part of its pledge to send 100m vaccines to the developing countries through Covax. The US government donated 647,000 doses of Moderna vaccine at the start of September as part of a $110m (£80m) Covid support scheme for the country. This still falls well short of what is needed to get the country fully operational.
Uganda expects to receive at least 12.3m vaccine doses by early 2022 and eventually aims to vaccinate about 22 million people, approximately half the population, to try to keep the pandemic at bay. According to Ugandan health ministry figures, about 1.4 million people have been vaccinated since the exercise started in March this year. A recent press article said that our 15 million schoolchildren, who have been out of classes for 18 months, will be playing catch-up “for years to come”. Until the vaccines arrive in the numbers required, their futures, as for most Ugandans, will remain on hold.
Jackee Budesta Batanda is a Ugandan writer and entrepreneur. She is the founder of The Blue Marble, the first writers’ house in Uganda