Kampala, Uganda | URN | Ugandans are increasingly becoming complacent, ignoring all safety measures initially imposed by the government to control the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) disease.
Although the government ordered strict enforcement of social distancing in markets and all public places and wearing of face masks, the guidelines have been discarded as every day, more and more Ugandans return to the streets, markets and all other busy centres.
In Kikuubo, Kampala’s biggest general merchandise market-area, one can hardly find space despite calls for social distancing as one of the control measures encouraged by the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation. Daily, over 10,000 traders access Kikuubo.
In queues, big trucks carrying merchandise wrestle for space with groups of people, some with face masks below their chins struggling through the only two entrances to the more than 20 arcades that make the busiest Kikuubo lane. The arcades had never been opened since the end of March when President Museveni directed a lockdown on both transport and non-food business.
At the time of the closure, the country had registered one case of COVID-19 and hundreds of others including some Kikuubo traders from high-risk countries were under quarantine.
By the time the gradual opening of the lockdown started last week, the country had about 550 cases. By today, the cases had risen to 657 but this seems to be the least of worries by persons operating from downtown Kampala.
Blasio Jargo who carries luggage says that even before the lockdown, he worked from hand to mouth with no savings that can push him through the weeks ahead. But Jargo says he cannot maintain a face mask all day because his work involves a lot of physical activity.
Another general merchandise dealer, Juliet Mercy Nabajja says that it is hard to adhere to some practices like social distancing because of the number of people competing for the limited space in Kikuubo.
At the entrance of Nabajja’s shop, Olivia Busulwa a dealer in second-hand clothes calls women to her stall. With six women standing close to each other with no thought of social distancing, they each go through the clothes, one by one. Dangling from a bag, strapped casually across her is a bottle of hand sanitizer. When we ask her how she keeps safe, she tells us she makes sure all the people who stop by her stall wear masks.
“I tell everyone who stops here to wear a mask. At times I also, tell them to sanitize and social distance but the space is limited, “she says.
Experts say that the country should be braced for more cases of COVID-19 which might come with some deaths if the situation remains the way it is with increased laxity amongst different communities.
However, the authorities in Kikuubo are equally baffled with enforcement as traders say there’s no way that they can maintain physical distancing when they want to cover up for up to three months already lost in lockdown.
Sam Bafirawala Muyomba, the in-charge of Publicity and General Duties at Kikuubo Business Community Association says that while they are aware of the danger ahead, they are still challenged on carrying out preventive measures such as social distancing and hand washing that could keep the disease away.
Muyomba blames the overcrowding on the continued closure of arcades. He says that after the President lifted a ban on transport, many of the traders who have shops inside arcades have now taken to the verandas to sale their products. This makes it hard for authorities in the business area to enforce some of the precautionary measures.
Muyomba says even with the little hand washing that happens, it was the initiative of the association to put in place a sanitizing facility manned by a man that they pay daily. Everyday, he says they buy about 60 jerrycans of water at a fee of 500 Shillings each.
For now, the business remains risky as Muyomba describes it with the hope being put in the re-opening of arcades which is likely to come with landlords hiring surveillance officers to enforce standard operating procedures such as temperature taking, disinfecting and maintaining a face mask on.
But Dr Diana Atwiine the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health says the reopening of arcades will happen after careful safety studying. “We have had several meetings to discuss the overcrowding downtown and we think we should open Kikuubo after monitoring what will happen in these few days after opening transport.”
The situation is not any different in other crowded areas of downtown Kampala. In Owino and Kisekka market, the few people who dare to abide by the social gathering measures like wearing masks stand out. The traders and hawkers in these areas do not wear masks. People sit in groups, laughing and sharing meals. For them, it is business as usual.