My experience working as a community outreach officer with the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) has exposed me to the imperative of citizen participation in the advancement of social and economic rights in Uganda – more so, in the Covid-19 response.
During a time where everyone’s health is dependent on the health of their neighbour, one would have expected the government to walk the walk of meaningful involvement of communities in all critical interventions undertaken to fight Covid-19. This, however, couldn’t have been further from the truth.
When the first Covid-19 case was noted in Uganda in March 2020, a lot happened; schools were closed and, subsequently, varying degrees of nationwide lockdown were instituted.
The spread of the pandemic varied in communities but one thing was without doubt held in common; measures undertaken to curb the spread affected the economic and social welfare of all. For example, access to health services was hindered because the government had suspended public and private means of transportation, save for a select few offering essential services.
With a weak or non-functional ambulance service system in most communities, the fate of many Ugandans seeking healthcare was to walk long distances to health facilities. It didn’t help the situation that for a patient to access means of transport, one had to seek the written permission of the area’s Resident District Commissioner (RDC) who was rather hard to come by.
It is, in part, due to such socially detached government interventions that a number of mothers were reported dead in the quest for healthcare – deaths that would have been prevented if communities had been consulted on the most practical ways of limiting transportation.
Reports from communities disclosed views that ranged from not requiring written permission in instances of health emergencies to – if necessary - seeking permission from local leaders that are easily accessible such as the Local Council I chairperson.
More so, how information about any government interventions was disseminated – via radio, television and newspapers - to communities was exclusionary for the vulnerable from the onset since access to such platforms is limited.
This alone widened the communication gap, leaving many behind and, therefore, hampering the response’s effectiveness. I expected the government to build capacity of the designated community structures in the first place to disseminate the relevant information.
Structures like the village health teams (VHTs), parish chiefs, community development officers (CDOs), Local Councils, and community health workers play a very vital role in dissemination of information at community level but these were never comprehensively involved in the response strategy.
Although the country launched the National Community Engagement Strategy (CES) for Covid-19 response on October 20, last year, this came rather belatedly and we are yet to see its actual implementation.
True to the essence of community participation, the strategy seeks to ensure that all people in Uganda are aware, empowered and actively participating in the prevention, and control of the outbreak of Covid-19 as both a duty and a right using existing structures, systems and resources.
What’s worrying is that months after the launch of this strategy, communities were not involved in the government’s strategy around the Covid-19 vaccine in Uganda. This ultimately begs the question: is government keen on actualizing community participation and ownership of the Covid-19 response?
It is clear that the government acknowledges the imperative of community engagement in governance; what isn’t is whether that acknowledgement is backed by a will and commitment. At the end of the day, if it’s effective interventions that we want, the government has to be deliberate about involving communities in the Covid-19 response.
This is especially important as we discuss Covid-19 vaccines. As the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights has advocated, it is important government engages with communities early. There is a lot of misinformation and while we have not traditionally seen very widespread vaccine hesitancy in Uganda, it has escalated with regard to the Covid-19 vaccine. Meaningful engagement requires that communities are given access to information and a seat at the table.
A multi-sectoral taskforce to develop strategy should be in place with communities and their representatives, civil society, village health teams and health workers, lawyers, communication specialists, psychologists in addition to the ministry of Health.
We are in a pandemic. This time we have the benefit of lessons from pandemics before. Meaningful participation and engagement of communities is a central one.
The writer is a community outreach officer with the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER).