On 18th March 2020, in the early hours of the day, mobile phones were frantically ringing, tempers flaring and stress levels high as the sun, as the first group of travelers arrived from the United States of America, United Kingdom, Netherlands, to mention but a few, all COVID-19 high-risk countries. This was the pioneer group that would ‘inaugurate’ institutional quarantine- a measure that the Ministry of Health instilled to prevent the importation of COVID-19 into the country. However, remember, this was a few days shy of Uganda detecting the first COVID-19 confirmed case.
A team from the Ministry of Health set out from Kampala to Entebbe to calm, counsel, and ease the situation experienced by the angry and frustrated travelers who were subjected to mandatory institutional quarantine for 14 days. The situation was hot- some of the high-risk individuals were threatening to escape the quarantine sites while others were hurling insults and prompting to riot.
This reaction from the travelers was well expected, given that there was no prior communication on the date mandatory institutional quarantine, was to be initiated. However, in earlier Press Statements, the Ministry strongly advised travelers from category one countries to delay visits or travel to Uganda or they will be subjected to mandatory institutional quarantine at their own cost.
However, in a twist of observations, the government had to quickly adopt mandatory institutional quarantine for each and every high-risk traveler to safeguard over 40 million Ugandans against a new viral yet highly infectious disease, COVID-19.
The Ministry of Health team, backed by security personnel, visited the hotel that was slowly becoming a center of national focus ‘Central Inn’ located in the leafy neighborhood of Church road, Entebbe where over 50 high-risk travelers, some with infants were situated. It was not a pleasant sight, to say the least. Babies were crying hysterically, elderly and middle-aged women were bitter and the hot Entebbe air was filled with even hotter emotions as the new residents of Central Inn saw the health officials disembark from the Government car and make their way to the lobby.
Being frontline health workers, we could not at any one point exhibit fear, worry, or even bat an eyelid as an angry possibly highly infectious group takes to hurling insults in less than a one-meter distance. Many times, the public uses every opportunity to lash out at the Ministry of Health officials, blame them for this, that and the other – always forgetting that we are humans too. While we are as resilient as we can be, we are not robots. But alas!
Efforts to make the group understand the importance of mandatory institutional quarantine were futile. We had to leave and request another team to speak to the angry lot which was also unsuccessful. That is how day one ended.
And this is how institutional quarantine in Uganda begun. It should be noted, though, that this measure, though tough is not isolated to our country. Many nations across the world have employed this COVID-19 preventive measure in order to arrest the spread of the disease.
The following day was not any different as social media remained awash with several pleas seeking an intervention from the Ministry of Health. Some media houses had also started making inquires on what exactly was happening at Entebbe International Airport and Central Inn. However, we would like to clarify that while the social media buzz was loud, people concocted posts claiming that returnees were being forced to pay $100 per night during their fortnight quarantine period. It later turned out that the hotel had offered a subsidized cost of $50 full board.
It was the evening of 19th March 2020 that we took a decision to visit Entebbe again not only to cross-check the various claims that were making rounds on social media but to assess how the Ministry of Health COVID-19 preventive guidelines were being implemented.
This was following the various social media posts doing rounds. It was around 1:30 pm that we (the authors of this article) accompanied the Minister of Health, Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng to her scheduled meeting with members of the Diplomatic Corps who had convened at the Residence of the United Nations Resident Coordinator Rosa Malango.
The meeting was organized in a huge tent and followed the COVID-19 preventive measures of social distancing and handwashing among others. The meeting went on successfully as Dr. Aceng clearly explained the measures government was undertaking to interrupt transmission of the deadly virus into the country.
The Minister of State for Health in charge of General Duties, Hon. Robinah Nabbanja, who also attended the meeting, thanked the diplomats for continuously supporting the government in trying times, like responding to public health epidemics.
Shortly after the meeting at around 5; 30pm, we resurrected our earlier and urgent plan of visiting the airport and the quarantine facility. We snaked through a gridlock of a traffic jam as we struggled to leave Kololo to join the Northern Bypass via Bwaise and subsequently into the redeemer, Entebbe Expressway. Driving at breakneck speeds, we jokingly relaxed by coming up with our own phrase “work-after-work” since we were now working seven days a week. This was linked to the then-popular hit by Big Trill known as “Parte after Parte.”
We arrived at the airport a few minutes before 7 pm and had a brief meeting chaired by the Minister of Health for all the stakeholders involved in the process of screening and receiving returning travelers. At the same meeting, the Minister was joined by other Ministry of Health officials like the Permanent Secretary Dr. Diana Atwine, senior officials from Port Health, Security, and Civil Aviation Staff.
Upon the successful meeting, the meeting found a lasting solution for over 130 passengers who had spent so many hours waiting tirelessly in the area between immigration booths and the screening point manned by hardworking and determined health workers.
After, evacuating the airport and enabling the angry, tired, and frustrated travelers to board buses to various hotels, we headed towards the Imperial Botanical hotel where some of the foreigners had also been stranded in the cold for many hours. The hotel management had denied them admission on account that they were not willing to pay for accommodation upfront.
Together with able managers, the Minister-led team quickly resolved these impasses. Given the multi-culture dynamics of the returnees, there was a French-speaking lady who was supposed to travel to Goma on another flight. The Communication team came in handy with Emmanuel Ainebyoona recollecting all his French studies for six years at Kigezi High School. He pulled out a French accent and lightened the mood with the Ministry team stealing giggles at Emma’s French chat with the lady.
The Ministry of Health has always employed a multi-disciplinary approach while responding to disease emergencies during previous disease outbreaks. This time around, Chinese speaking volunteers had also been brought on board to interpret the documents that were being presented by the travelers with a travel history of visiting China – the country where the coronavirus was first reported.
Anyway, time check, 10:45 pm: We hopped into our respective cars and dashed out of Imperial Botanical Beach hotel headed towards, Central Inn where a major stalemate had lingered for about two days with some returnees sleeping in the lobby having failed to reach an agreement with the hotel management.
In a very stormy meeting characterized by emotions, the returnees narrated their ordeals, with some students narrating how they had been ordered to vacate their universities without prior notice. Indeed, the mood was somber. After all, parties had composed themselves, the Permanent Secretary, Dr Diana Atwine took to the floor characterized by her calm composure and motherly approach. She explained why the Ministry of Health had taken some of the COVID-19 measures that were rather not comfortable.
It was here that we meet face-to-face with some of the media friends like the Observer Cartoonist, Dr Jimmy Spire Ssentongo who kept very silent during the entire meeting. However, his silence was louder on social media on the days to come following his transfer to Arch Apartments, another quarantine facility that was more pocket friendly.
Having successfully calmed the Central Inn residents and allayed anxiety, the team calmly walked to their cars, exhausted, hungry but relieved that the situation was now under control.
Time check: 1:30 am, we hit the Entebbe expressway, played some Afro-music to lift the spirits, and calmly drove back to Kampala after a long day… not knowing there were several of these coming ahead of us.
As Uganda receives more returnees who have been stranded in over 50 countries across the world, let us appreciate the proactive measures that the Government of Uganda has put in place.
Drastic measures have been taken by the leadership, but this has been in the interest of the population. To the returnees, institutional quarantine at a facility of your choice is not easy but worth it for yours and your dear one’s safety. To the population, discipline is key if we are to win this COVID fight.
Part II coming soon
The authors are members of the Risk Communication Pillar of the COVID-19 Incident team and Staff the Ministry of Health Public Relations Office