American billionare Warren Buffett says ‘trust is like the air we breathe – when it’s present, not body really notices; when it’s absent, everybody notices’.
It is more of a truism to say that trust is the cornerstone of any private or public relationship. Where it is, complex things get simplified; where it is not, simple things become complicated.
Once it is dented, relations are bound to get bumpy, no matter how good the faith that may inform our actions. The Baganda say that a person who has ever been bitten by a snake might run in sight of a rope, even if he actually needed a rope.
Our government does not have such a good record on matters involving money; perhaps the same applies to most of our society today. Integrity has decayed in our watch over the years. The result is that whenever money comes into the picture in a public matter, many of us become suspicious and cynical.
We see potential thieves everywhere. This is not helped by the fact that even the institutions we expect to check on these vices are not spared by the spell of money either. Many will only raise dust before they are also ‘sorted’. This is where Covid-19 found us, in a thieving culture!
If the locusts were a starter, then Covid-19 was seen by some of our greedy officials as the main course. There are some well-meaning people in government that work selflessly for the public good. But their efforts are easily outshined by those of the heartless gluttons that strategically cast their nets around every national disaster.
In the first responses of Uganda towards the Covid-19 pandemic, there was indication that a big section of Ugandans had put much of the past aside and given government the benefit of doubt.
Indeed, some people in the ministry of Health were working so hard within their normal budgets. They made a couple of mistakes, but many were easily forgiven because of the several grey areas around the new disease. Something needed to be done, even though knowledge was still scanty.
Most of the first initiatives were applauded by the public even if they had flaws here and there. The applause was partly because the public was too scared of the disease threat to antagonise government, but also in belief that many of the measures were in good faith.
This was an opportunity to rebuild public trust in government, and we needed it more than ever before. All government measures to prevent the disease require public trust as a conditio sine qua non.
But, as sure as stench follows rot, when supplementary budgets and donations started coming in, our usual hyenas grabbed the steering wheel. While much of the money was necessary, it was not hard to notice that many things had been inflated.
But even if that were not considered and we blindly assumed that it was all in good faith and meant for work, merely hearing about the huge budgets was enough to awaken the suspicions and cynicism of the public. Perhaps if government was not known for corruption, there would be no noise about the money.
Alas, even those that had hesitantly given government the benefit of doubt in the hope that the threat of a killer disease would solicit new behaviour, were soon hit by the familiar ugly news from the Office of the Prime Minister! Food for the vulnerable was just but another looting opportunity! What ate our humanity!
Before the papers announcing this scandal bleached, parliament was warming up to its own bite – scheming for money even before drafting any clear idea on what to lie for it! When people are locked up at their homes in untold hardship and they start hearing such stories, what do we expect them to think?
The lockdown precaution is indeed justified, and the disease is real. We might be covered by some mystical luck so far not to have registered serious cases and death in Uganda, but it would be too quick to dismiss the threat.
Our bigger problem now is corruption and public perceptions of it. Unfortunately, many people have started doubting everything with a feeling that it could all be a grand plan to steal in the shadow of Covid-19.
Positive case trends are being questioned, recovery reports are laughed at, accountability for donations is doubted, and the necessity of the lockdown is also under public query.
It is commonplace now to hear people say ‘Let them go on with their stealing but allow us to move.”
Some have started abandoning their earlier alertness in washing hands, sanitising, and keeping safe distance. All this is occasioned by lack of trust, and, primarily, by the acts that diminish public trust.
In such an environment, sensitisation becomes very difficult because the public’s ear is lost. Recently, I drew a cartoon to demonstrate that the doubts among the public are dangerous to the people themselves and that coronavirus is real.
There was so much public feedback insisting that the whole Covid-19 thing is about money, and that they are tired of suffering while others ‘eat’!
This is a very dangerous social perception, and all efforts must be put on rehabilitating public trust as the most important measure for any other initiative to work. Government communication and accountability must be as meticulous as possible.
Actions that can very easily be misinterpreted in these times should be honestly and clearly explained or avoided to deter worse consequences.
For instance, even if parliament needed that money, it was a wrong time to ask for it given what we know that house to be capable of. There must also be deliberate efforts to transparently answer people’s questions and appreciate where they come from. Otherwise, we risk all our successes and sacrifices.
The author is a teacher of philosophy