On Monday evening my evening walk took me to Najjera, which has been in the headlines almost more than the Presidential speeches during this lockdown period. In a weird twist, this dusty suburb with narrow, pot-holed roads and very stubborn drivers has hit the imagination of the country. It seems the people of Najjera have never really taken to the lockdown, and have tried their level best to ignore it.
First thing I noticed is that before you get to the real Najjera, there is a sign reading ‘Kira Municipality Welcomes You’. So right, Najjera is not in Kampala, but in Wakiso. These fellows that cause all kinds of problem to the capital city actually do not live in it. Basically they are upcountry people, which might explain the maalo.
I noticed that very few people were wearing masks, contrary to the Presidential directive. And social distancing, the second pillar in the fight against getting infected with the covid-19 virus, was just a joke.
It was easy to put it up to the quirky character of Najjera residents, but as the lockdown entered its third month (who ever imagined we would get here?) it is clear that Ugandans are not taking this corona virus thing very seriously anymore.
A friend of mine (proud residence of the Republic of Najjera, as she put it) said that most Ugandans do not personally know anyone that has been afflicted with the virus.
“They are all just numbers put out by the Ministry of Health every day”, she said. “And in any case no Ugandan has even died from covid-19. To many, this lockdown is just an over-reaction by the authorities.”
When the initial lockdown was declared in mid-March, the figures of people dying in China and Europe were very scaring. We all knew it was just a matter of time before the virus reached our shores, and with our laughable health system, Uganda was bound to pay a very heavy price.
It did not help that the western media was coming every day out with projections of how badly the virus will hit Africa once it got here. Millions were projected to die, and we took it very seriously. So we diligently washed out hands every time we touched something not part of us, wore masks where we could, and strictly kept to social distancing.
But mostly, we stayed home. A friend of mine did not leave her gate till the ban on private cars was lifted, almost two months later. For two months her gate was only opened to let in supplies delivered by boda riders.
That is how Ugandans were diligent in observing measures to prevent the spread of covid-19. We have been there before, during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 80s, and the intermittent ebola outbreaks, so we knew what to do, and we did it.
But as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months without any serious outbreak in the country, lethargy begun to creep in. And since the lockdown brought many economic activities to a standstill, a feeling that it was all an overreaction started growing.
It also did not help that there is still very little community transmission of the virus in Uganda, with most of the infected either truck drivers, or people that have come into contact with them. The ones that flew in with it from Dubai and other countries have almost all recovered, and gone home.
So covid-fatigue set in, and Ugandans figured this thing was not very serious at all. The most trending stories on social media had it that the lockdown was actually the work of some mysterious mafia, who are making billions from it while the rest of us are suffering.
The posho and beans that are being distributed free of charge? The mafia is the one supplying, and making a killing. When the President announced that the lockdown will not be lifted till everyone was given free masks by the government, stories about that it was the mafia that would get the tenders to supply the masks. It was generally felt that until the mafia had squeezed the very last shilling out of it, the lockdown will not end.
So the peeps in Najjera stopped wearing masks, and did not bother with social distancing. Pictures made the rounds of business as usual in Kikuubo, with zero social distancing and a general lack of people wearing masks.
Kikuubo during the times of covid-19
Shoppers in supermarkets even started to get annoyed when told to keep social distance. “There is no corona in Uganda,” a man was heard to say in one Ntinda supermarket.
People stopped watching news on TV, tired of the same items every day of how thousands of people were still dying around the world. Our horror at pictures of dozens of coffins laid out in Italy soon paled, and we simply stopped looking or taking notice.
A few days ago the Ministry of Health announced the single largest daily leap in infections, when 84 Ugandans were diagnosed with the virus. If that had been in April, we would have locked our doors and gates and refused to talk to strangers, but hardly anyone took notice, which is a very dangerous thing to do.
For some reason, Uganda has been spared the worst of the pandemic; as has been most of Africa. The western media has even stopped trumpeting stories of how Africa is going to be the worst hit part of the world, and editorials trying to explain why Africa has not been hit as hard as the rest of the word have also largely stopped.
It seems we are out of the woods, and there is increasing pressure on the government to fully lift the lockdown. But all it takes is for those truck drivers to start dying, and we are back into the woods, big time.
Covid-19 is here to stay, and as life slowly goes back to some sort of normality, we should all still be aware that it can still hit us, very badly. And stay away from Najjera.