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Solomon Genza Hosey has been driving a taxi for 18 months. But he is not a taxi driver. Hosey is one of 550,000 Ugandan teachers and education support staff who have been out of work almost continuously since the government first closed schools last year.
Worse than the fate of teachers who have been forced to earn a living by all means is that of their students. An estimated 15 million Ugandan children have not received an education since schools were closed last March as part of measures to contain the virus. Few children have benefited from distance education. Many will never go back to school.
“There’s no food at home, so most of the boys drive boda boda,” Hosey explains, referring to the motorcycle taxis some of his former students maneuver in Kampala’s booming traffic for as little as 28 cents each way. “And as for the girls – those who are 14, 15, 16 years old – they tell me: ‘This one is pregnant, this one is pregnant. Many children are now mothers.
Since the first case of Covid-19 in Uganda was reported in March 2020, officially 3,130 people have died from the virus. This may underestimate the actual number because of poor record keeping. Still, this points to a relatively modest death toll which is at least in part the result of the country’s draconian lockdown policies. Even now, the streets of Kampala are becoming eerily silent at the 7pm curfew.
But containment comes at a price. While the direct health impact of Covid-19 has been relatively minor, the social and economic repercussions have been devastating.
The first is a rash from teenage pregnancies. Unicef cited a report showing a 22.5% increase in pregnancies from March 2020 to June 2021 among girls and women aged 10 to 24. Many fathers are said to be older men, taking advantage of boredom and economic desperation to push underage girls into having sex or marrying.
Domestic violence has skyrocketed, according to Unicef. The United Nations Development Program estimates that 1.9 million Ugandans fell into poverty in the first eight weeks of lockdown last year alone. As elsewhere, the fight against other diseases, in particular AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, has suffered.
Uganda is an extreme example of what is true for much of Africa, where deaths from Covid have been quite low outside of a few countries like South Africa, Tunisia and Egypt.
But far from getting away lightly, countries like Uganda will stumble out of the pandemic among the most battered. Decades of progress on basic development goals, such as reducing child mortality and enrolling girls in school, will be delayed by several years. A whole generation of premature dropouts is at risk of being marginalized.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has led the lockdown measures often to the applause of health experts and international donors. Like other leaders, he faced real political dilemmas. His actions may have saved many people from the death of Covid-19. But by following a lockdown manual drawn up in wealthier countries, it may have inadvertently caused more pain and damage than the lockdown remedy was designed to alleviate.
These decisions are finely balanced. Museveni undoubtedly took his with the best of intentions, although the vulnerability to Covid-19 of the aging elite who rule Uganda – Museveni himself is 77 years old – surely played a role. In comparison, Ugandan citizens have a median age of 16, making them relatively less at risk. On the other hand, even now Uganda could be hit by a variant of the type that has swept through India, another country that once seemed to have dodged the worst.
Some things are still clear. One is that countries like Uganda, where around 1% of the population is fully immunized, are in desperate need of vaccines to get back on their feet. Ugandan schools briefly reopened but closed again in June, in part because there weren’t enough jabs for teachers.
Second, reopening schools, as neighboring countries have done, is a priority. Uganda has gone too far in the direction of caution and risks wasting a generation as a result.
When the pandemic is over, it will take many years for many countries to heal the social and economic scars. In Uganda these scars will be deeper than most.