Uganda is not new to massive disease outbreaks. Ebola, cholera, and marburg have always plunged the country into periods of panic. On each occasion, government responded tremendously - building capacities that limited the damage through awareness and rapid response programs that have worked impressively.
Despite having this experience, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, government was unprepared. Whereas ebola could be identified in a specific area and duly contained locally, it was difficult to do the same for COVID. For example, a case could be registered in Adjumani, then one in Kasese, and four in Kampala. It was a tactile disease and given human interaction, touch is critical and thus very difficult to limit.
The government's response was with public interest and safety in mind. The first step was to impose a lockdown that limited transport and interpersonal interaction regardless of the numerous health and economic challenges this brought about. Then, we moved to more direct measures which involved tracing patients and their immediate contacts, who would then be brought under a 14-day quarantine that heralded treatment in case one was found positive.
During all this, the government collected lots of data. People’s identification details like names, phone numbers, and location data was collected. Unfortunately, this didn’t find proper collection structures in place. For example, considerations were made to have data collected by boda boda riders, restaurant owners, and salons, on top of already existing collection points like banks, hotels, and student hostels. The risk is this data ending up in the wrong hands - exposing people to scams and other crimes.
On top of this genuine concern, the government abused freedoms of privacy and expression. Ministry of Health expanded Section 36 of the Public Health Act (CAP 281), and issued the Public Health (Control of COVID-19) Rules, 2020.
Here, the government granted search powers to medical or health officers and inspectors, to enter both public and private premises to search for any COVID-19 cases. These powers are also granted to ‘other persons acting on the written instructions of a medical officer’ but it is not clear which category of persons fall under this broad term or whether these powers can be delegated to police officers.
It was not uncommon for people to be home lounging on a casual afternoon and then minutes later, a team of health workers or security forces barge in to pick up suspects for testing and possible quarantine. Sometimes, the suspects stayed in these facilities longer than the recommended 14 days and didn’t even get to see their results.
With all the data collected, we are still yet to know if indeed it is stored safely enough away from the hands of misusers or not being sold and what the citizens can do to protect themselves.
The author is a programs manager at Pollicy