The prolonged Covid-19 lockdown in Uganda is exacting a huge toll on the people’s resilience. Although the pandemic is global, it is experienced differentially in various countries and locales around the world. Preventive measures such as lockdowns have a long history as nonpharmaceutical interventions to blunt the force of extreme mortality events. However, there is much that is new about the present Covid-19 crisis.
This brief essay reflects on covert tyrannies underpinning the rationale for lockdowns, drawing on the case of Uganda. In what follows, I argue that the attendant mass surveillance and controls placed on human liberties in the context of a “war” against the new coronavirus—what I refer to as coronization of our lives—may surpass the tyranny experienced during the era of European colonization. Worse still, decision-making about the response to Covid-19 has, in the main, remained the exclusive preserve of state executives—governments at various levels, and some government-aligned epidemiologists, dovetailing with military and security operatives—with little or no democratic oversight.
The Raging Debate
A thorny debate has been ongoing within the medical science community ever since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. The reasons being advanced to justify lockdowns the world over lie at the heart of the debate. Many government-aligned epidemiologists and public health experts in the Global North and Global South alike have endorsed measures for containing the contagion that include imposing lockdowns. They argue that such measures will lower as much as possible the daily effective reproduction number (Rt) for Covid-19 transmissibility—the aim being to get Rt below 1.1Benjamin J. Cowling et al., “Impact Assessment of Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions against Coronavirus Disease 2019 and Influenza in Hong Kong: An Observational Study,” The Lancet Public Health 5, no. 5 (May 2020)” E279–88, https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30090-6. These experts are mostly based in government-, intergovernmental-, or philanthropy-funded institutes of infectious diseases as well as national centers for disease control and prevention. That asymptomatic Covid-19-infected persons are highly contagious offers to these epidemiologists as well as the governments they advise the needed fuel for extravagant lockdown measures.
If epidemiologists stand on the one side of the debate, pathologists are to be found on the other. Together with other medical scientists, pathologists have also maintained a critical stance vis-à-vis the effectiveness of total lockdowns. These pathologists are mostly based at various microbiological research centers in universities. They emphasize that the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (with a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1 percent) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968), rather than a disease similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) or Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which had case fatality rates of 9 to 10 percent and 36 percent, respectively.2See Anthony S. Fauci, Clifford H. Lane, and Robert R. Redfield, “Covid-19—Navigating the Uncharted,” New England Journal of Medicine 382, no. 13 (March 2020): 1268–69, https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMe2002387.
An Unprecedented yet Dismal response
The numbers of Covid-19 infections and deaths—thus far—still pale in comparison to those of the so-called Spanish flu of a century ago. For a pandemic believed to have infected about one in four of the world’s population between 1918 and 1920, the world certainly slowed down, but it did not lock down. With Covid-19, however, life and livelihoods—pretty much everywhere—have largely been put on pause.
It is now two months since the government of Uganda decreed a nationwide lockdown (coupled with a 7:00 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. curfew). I have discovered an eerie resemblance between the ways in which the city of Seattle in the United States responded to the 1918 flu pandemic and how Uganda as a country is responding to Covid-19 a century later. The Spanish influenza—so called, despite originating not in Spain but, allegedly, in Kansas in 1917—finally spread to Seattle in October 1918. The city’s commissioner for health, Dr. J. S. McBride, in concert with the city mayor, Mr. Ole Hanson, ordered police to strictly enforce an antispitting ordinance, in addition to other quarantine measures. Cal Winslow, who has written extensively on this event, tells us that the police organized an Influenza Squad3Cal Winslow, “When the Seattle General Strike and the 1918 Flu Collided,” Jacobin, May 2020, https://jacobinmag.com/2020/05/seattle-general-strike-1918-spanish-flu. to enforce the orders, but results were mixed. Those who could began leaving the city, some fleeing to mountain retreats, others further afield. In spite of these measures, the virus spread unabated when infected sailors from Philadelphia arrived in Puget Sound.
Here in Uganda, the present-day equivalent to Seattle’s Influenza Squad is the combined enforcement team consisting of the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Force (UPDF), the Uganda Police Force (UPF), and the Local Defence Units (LDU). As for the sailors from Philadelphia who were believed to have imported the flu to Seattle, their equivalent in the Ugandan case are truck drivers from Kenya and Tanzania, currently seen as importing Covid-19 to Uganda. The mixed results observed in the case of flu-stricken Seattle a century ago are here mirrored in the activities of Uganda’s Covid-19 Response Task Force. Insult was added to the injury of the country’s urban poor when a cluster of officials from the Office of the Prime Minister refused to procure cheaper beans, maize flour, and other essential items destined to the already vulnerable people according to the country’s Covid-19 response plan. Instead, they “allegedly padded the rules to benefit regime-backed business[men].”4Angelo Izama, “Africa’s Armies and Security Systems in the COVID-19 era: A Case of Uganda’s response to the Coronavirus,” Reflections on COVID-19 Politics in Uganda 3, Uganda Transition Scenarios Thought Leadership Group, May 2020, https://www.glissafrica.org/storage/transitions/May2020/vwcbj3oJmtzmgKZDzWJX.pdf.
The Big Irony
A declaration of victory over Covid-19 by the government may be imminent. However, pains inflicted on sections of the populace by the capricious implementation of the lockdown cannot be glossed over. Furthermore, holding up the imposition of a total lockdown à la Chinese authorities in Wuhan as a model for responding to Covid-19 in Uganda may be an expensive experiment in cut-and-paste policy imitation.
The government in Uganda is claiming, and perhaps rightly so, that it is responding to the science of the day. What is conspicuously clear, however, is that the scientific voice in question has been not democratic enough in its conceptualization and scope. In sum, epidemiologists affiliated with the Ugandan Ministry of Health have listened the least to their counterparts in the larger medical science community and spoken the loudest to the government of the day.5Olive Kobusingye, “Surviving the COVID 19 Pandemic: The View from a Ugandan Surgeon and Epidemiologist,” From Poverty to Power, May 12, 2020, https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/surviving-the-covid-19-pandemic-the-view-from-a-ugandan-surgeon-and-epidemiologist/. What is more, their unrelenting obsession with “flattening the curve” has had major disquieting consequences to both Ugandan people’s ways of life and livelihoods.6I detailed some on aspects of these disquieting consequences in my previous blog piece titled “Whose Home in the COVID-19 #StayHome Campaign?” at https://www.refugeelawproject.org/index.php/blog-menu/operation-and-support-blog/whose-home-in-the-covid-19-stayhome-campaign. Of concern, for instance, is the way the likely troubling consequences of prolonged lockdowns on mental health has been glossed over. To address this and other concerns, it is time to rethink and democratize the response to Covid-19. Otherwise, the current response will continue to feed the further securitizing of Covid-19. Many Ugandan lives risk being coronized—that is, governed by a new regime of constant mass surveillance in the name of disease control and prevention.
Even when steps are taken toward democratizing the response to Covid-19 beyond the science of “flattening the curve,” it is all the more important for the state, the market, and the society to remember that pandemics are too serious a matter to be left largely to government-aligned epidemiologists. It will take a concerted interdisciplinary effort, bringing together other scientists and including insights from the humanities and social sciences, culture, and the arts, to draw upon collective knowledge and energies in eliminating this daunting threat to humanity. Indeed, pandemics such as this clearly remind us that medicine can be best approached from a social science perspective. Politics, not simply as Aristotle and many after him understood it, is definitely key to the equation. It may be tempting to see the current pandemic to be a roll of history’s dice. Ultimately, however, the ways in which the roll reshuffles our current order—social, economic, geopolitical, etc.—are contingent upon our political and collective response.
Answers to the question of what damage the lockdown is causing have largely been framed economically. Much less discussed, thus far, is what is politically at stake. The political harm inflicted on society by the lockdown, I surmise, goes beyond the simple trade-off between livelihoods lost due to the economic downturn and lives lost due to Covid-19. The circumscription of major human liberties only to the limited few carrying special permits (as dispensers of essential goods and services) does not bode well for the rest of masses who, in the name of public health surveillance, are being dragooned into social inertia. If the current pattern of events persists, the briefer and truer version of Uganda’s Covid-19 story will consist of a depoliticization of the masses under the pretext of “flattening the curve.”
- 1Benjamin J. Cowling et al., “Impact Assessment of Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions against Coronavirus Disease 2019 and Influenza in Hong Kong: An Observational Study,” The Lancet Public Health 5, no. 5 (May 2020)” E279–88, https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30090-6.
- 2See Anthony S. Fauci, Clifford H. Lane, and Robert R. Redfield, “Covid-19—Navigating the Uncharted,” New England Journal of Medicine 382, no. 13 (March 2020): 1268–69, https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMe2002387.
- 3Cal Winslow, “When the Seattle General Strike and the 1918 Flu Collided,” Jacobin, May 2020, https://jacobinmag.com/2020/05/seattle-general-strike-1918-spanish-flu.
- 4Angelo Izama, “Africa’s Armies and Security Systems in the COVID-19 era: A Case of Uganda’s response to the Coronavirus,” Reflections on COVID-19 Politics in Uganda 3, Uganda Transition Scenarios Thought Leadership Group, May 2020, https://www.glissafrica.org/storage/transitions/May2020/vwcbj3oJmtzmgKZDzWJX.pdf.
- 5Olive Kobusingye, “Surviving the COVID 19 Pandemic: The View from a Ugandan Surgeon and Epidemiologist,” From Poverty to Power, May 12, 2020, https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/surviving-the-covid-19-pandemic-the-view-from-a-ugandan-surgeon-and-epidemiologist/.
- 6I detailed some on aspects of these disquieting consequences in my previous blog piece titled “Whose Home in the COVID-19 #StayHome Campaign?” at https://www.refugeelawproject.org/index.php/blog-menu/operation-and-support-blog/whose-home-in-the-covid-19-stayhome-campaign.