The Covid-19 story came from China; I read about it from American media and lived it in Uganda. In late 2019, I read about a mysterious disease that was killing people in Wuhan, China.
Then I watched US President Donald Trump downplay its seriousness and thanking Chinese President Xi Jinping for handling it meticulously. Then it was given a name, coronavirus (Covid-19). But I could not imagine that a story I was reading about unravelling thousands of miles away in Wuhan, would become a real-life horror for me in Uganda.
On March 18, President Museveni closed schools, places of worship and banned mass gatherings, among others, as a proactive measure to slow the spread of a virus that had not yet had one case in the country. Now the story was in our backyard. I had reason to worry.
I had read several stories of how the virus had killed people with preexisting medical conditions. I was in that category. Henceforth, I made it a habit to wear my face mask in public and carry a hand sanitizer in my backpack. That worked until October.
One evening in the third week of October, I started feeling weak. I had pain not only in the joints, but all over the body. I had headaches that refused to go away. In the evening my temperature would go up and I would start shivering. I got a stinging flu that would make my nose itch. Then came a dry cough.
I started thinking, this might be Covid. I stayed away from office for a few days. I also stopped going for congregational prayers in the mosque. I went to one of the best hospitals in Kampala and took a test after describing my symptoms. The results came out positive for a viral infection, but not coronavirus. They prescribed medicine and also advised me to take lots of fluids and concoctions.
But the symptoms persisted. I needed to take a Covid-19 test. Luckily, the presidential nominations were coming up and I knew it was mandatory for journalists to get screened for Covid before they got into close proximity with President Museveni. The Electoral Commission made it a requirement to present a negative PCR result to access the nomination centre in Kyambogo.
I left home on October 30 after days in self-isolation, to take the test at the Electoral Commission offices. I thought it would be a miracle if I tested negative. It had been about 10 days since the onset of symptoms. On November 1, I received a call from the Electoral Commission telling me my accreditation to cover the nominations was revoked because I had tested positive.
I don’t know if there are words to describe my feelings then. I had suspected the results would return positive, but I was still not prepared for the bad news. By then, many of the symptoms, like loss of appetite and sense of smell, the incessant headaches, and the bodily aches had disappeared. I was only left with a dry cough and flu, although it was not as stinging as it had been.
I heard nothing from the ministry of Health until Tuesday morning, five days after I had tested positive and I was under self-isolation. I had increased the quantity and concentration of the concoctions I was taking. A friend who had contracted the virus earlier, had also advised me on which medicines to swallow on top of the herbal concoctions.
OFF TO NAMBOOLE
“Hello, Mr Batte, good morning; have they told you about your Covid results?” said a lady on the other end of the line when I picked the call. When I answered in the affirmative, she asked if they could take me to a quarantine centre at Mandela National stadium, Namboole.
My heart nearly jumped out of my body.
“But I’m OK. I don’t have any problem. I guess the virus is even on its way out because all the symptoms I used to have, have since disappeared,” I told her. But as we spoke, I kept clearing my voice to speak properly.
“You see, even that is a symptom. You know most of the people who have died of Covid in Uganda delayed to come to a health facility until it was too late. Covid can give you a false belief that you’re OK but when you get an attack, it can be really fatal,” she said.
When she mentioned that, I felt like I could not breathe again. I had felt shortness of breath a few days earlier. Then I remembered my preexisting condition and gave in. She told me she would be giving my cellphone number to an ambulance driver to pick me up. I dashed to the bedroom to tell my wife who also had similar symptoms and was taking similar medication and concoctions.
“Are we going together? I have the same symptoms like you; so, it’s not rocket science that I contracted the virus too,” she reasoned.
The ministry of Health lady had asked about the number of people I stayed with. I had told her one, and it appeared like she (my wife) would also be taken in. But my wife was hesitant about going to Namboole. She felt we already had everything needed in our own isolation centre. I insisted that if something happened to me, she might not forgive herself. Grudgingly, she gave in and we waited for the ambulance driver to call.
At 3:25pm, the driver finally called to ask where I was. When I told him Magere (Nangabo sub-county), he shivered. At that time there were running battles between the police and the National Unity Platform presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu who had just been nominated. Bullets, stones, teargas were flying in all directions in Magere where he too, stays.
“Let’s first wait for the situation to calm down, then I will pick you.”
At 6:20pm, the ambulance finally picked me. I had asked him not to switch the siren on, in order not to scare my neighbours. He obliged. I sat in the back, and was pleasantly surprised that this ministry of Health ambulance looked well-equipped, not like the empty vans that most members of parliament buy for their constituents. This one had an oxygen cylinder, defibrillators, and other boxes that looked like they contained medicine.
Riding in the ambulance was a female health worker. From Gayaza, the sirens thankfully remained off and were only turned on when we found a traffic jam towards Kitetikka. It took us less than 30 minutes to get to Namboole, at 6:46pm. The driver signed a form and handed it to somebody, I later learnt was also a Covid patient but appointed as our chairman. Before he could take me to my ward, the chairman handed me a pack of food and a bottle of water.
He then led me to a room for new arrivals. He carried a mosquito net, a clean bedsheet and small blanket. He pulled one bed from a collection of about 70 others, put it in line with other occupied beds, and helped me lay it. “Feel at home. If there is anything you need, please tell me,” he said, wishing me a good night.
I looked around; it looked like a school dormitory. I sat down on my bed, opened my food pack and started eating. The food was a thoughtful touch; I had not had lunch so, I was really starving. It was a big portion of rice, matoke, chicken, peas and posho. After eating, I took another bedsheet I had packed from home, which I used to cover myself. I folded the blanket into a pillow, said my evening prayers and went to sleep.
By 1am, I was awake. I got my phone and watched results of the American presidential elections till dawn. The chairman came to suggest I go and do some exercises like the other patients. I didn’t want to work out. I called my mother to deliver my grim news and that is when she finally concurred that coronavirus is not a creation of the political class.
“I thought all along Covid was a hoax; you know the government has lied to us for so long that it’s hard to believe anything they say,” she told me.
At Namboole I was hearing people say they only accepted that Covid was real after they contracted it. But there were others who, even after contracting it, were not convinced it was real.
“Is that test capable of differentiating between coronavirus and the usual flu?” one man asked the other.
At around 9:20am, breakfast was served: an egg, a banana, cookie, samosa served with black or African tea. At dawn, cleaners in hazmat suits came and cleaned our dormitories and toilets. At Namboole, the patient’s role is to eat, exercise, see a doctor, sleep, and repeat that.
At around 11am, doctors, who are non-residents, came and carried out tests for HIV, diabetes, heart disease, among others, and prescribed medicine. I was given Paracetamol, Zinc Sulphate, Vitamin C and Azithromycin. This routine continued for all seven days I spent at Namboole.
On the day I arrived, nine other patients had arrived with me. A similar number would continue to arrive daily, including students. Two days before my departure, 15 students were brought in from one of the swankiest schools in Kampala. I was told 60 students in that school had tested Covid-19 positive.
What concerned me was that many of them were below 18 years, but were sharing wards with adults, despite the huge spaces available for use. I counted about 1,000 empty beds. My room looked like it had capacity of more than 80 beds but we were only 12 there. Most of the other 11 were all staff of one government department.
Most of the patients spend their time in conversation, but I used my time to read books I had kept away from a long time. One of them was Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, an account of her presidential loss to Donald Trump in 2016. Soon, the 10 days after my first positive test were over.
The policy is, after 10 days, you either take another PCR test and wait for results for two to three days, or you get discharged. One doctor told me they believe that after 10 days, the virus is no longer lethal to its victim, neither is it as contagious. I chose to go home, because I knew by the time I tested the virus was already on its way out of my system.
I would take a test at a private facility to be sure that I was negative. On Monday, November 9, I left Namboole. Two days later another ministry of Health official called to ask whether I had gone to an isolation centre and whether people at home had been tested. It was funny; how do you seek to do contact-tracing after 14 days of my testing positive?
They told me they are coming, nonetheless, to test them. It has been five days ￼ already and I’m still waiting for them. My takeaway from Namboole? It was one of those rare occasions I saw my government trying hard to do something right.
The doctors are present, the medicine is available, the patients are given what they need in their daily lives including diapers for mothers with babies, and sanitary towels for the female patients, surgical masks for everybody, and food that is well-cooked.
They even provide transport to patients who have been discharged. I was told each is given Shs 30,000. The doctor in charge said it would be sent through mobile money.
I’m patiently waiting; that would be a good return on my taxes. The Covid-19 story came from China, I read about it from American media and lived it in Uganda. Covid-19 is real. I have lived it and was lucky to survive it. As I write, 150 families in Uganda are staring at empty chairs after their loved ones succumbed to the virus; another death is one too many.