Urban poor, refugees worst hit by COVID-19 prevention protocols

KAMPALA – The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis that touches everyone. Countries including Uganda since the start of the year 2020 imposed lockdowns, and a deep recession is unavoidable.

Workers especially in informal sector are struggling to cope with the economic fallout caused by the spread of Covid-19.  An urban refugee wonders where the next meal will come from while a teacher struggles to pay rent and feed the family.

Summy Oyite, 27, a South Sudan urban refugee spent the past year playing music at a Hotel in Kampala. But when hotel occupancy plummeted because of the coronavirus, his employer did not renew his contract. He has no job since March 2020.

“It’s really difficult,” Oyite said. “I have never experienced anything like this and I don’t know how it is going to be from now on.”

With no income, Oyite, who has a wife and 2-year old child is thinking about starting a YouTube channel to make ends meet.


A Google map showing agencies handling urban refugees in Kampala Metropolitan Area

Uganda reported its first COVID-19 case in March 2020 and has since recorded over 40000 cases. Income generating activities have been disrupted by restrictions on movement, nighttime curfews and other preventive measures.

Vulnerable communities, including refugees whose incomes were already low, are some of the worst hit by the economic downturn.

But most of Uganda’s urban residents are a hand-to-mouth lot. Literally, they live off their ability to make it to town centers every day. A slight disruption in this routine means people will go hungry at home.

The government begun distributing maize (corn) flour and beans to vulnerable people affected by the lockdown, including child-headed families, persons living with HIV and the elderly.

But the urban poor said this wasn’t enough.

Eunice Nabifo, a mother of three who lives in a suburb of Kampala, the nation’s capital, said she and her family have been eating maize porridge for a week now because she doesn’t have more food.


Uganda hosts 1.4 million refugees – more than 80,000 of them live and work in Kampala, where they normally support themselves. Refugees who opt to live outside designated settlements are expected to be self-reliant and do not receive regular humanitarian assistance, in line with the government’s urban refugee policy.

Now, many urban refugees say they are not able to afford food and rent. In some places, they have mobilized resources to assist the most vulnerable among them.

Nujanama Nkomezi, a Congolese pastor and fish merchant, whose church was distributing food to some urban refugees, says everyone is worried about the future.

A new study titled “the socio-economic and psychosocial impact of Covid-19 pandemic on urban refugees in Uganda” suggests that the pandemic revealed the vulnerabilities urban refugees in Uganda are facing. The study also states that this is indicative of what other urban refugees in Africa are experiencing.

“The pandemic has increased social stigma and social isolation of urban refugees,” the study has indicated, especially, where the fact that COVID-19 in the early days was perceived as “imported”; coming from either foreigners or nationals that travelled abroad made the population and authorities suspicious of foreigners including refugees.

The socio-economic and psychosocial impact of Covid-19 pandemic on urban refugees in Uganda by Javira Ssebwami on Scribd

The government’s initial Covid-19 response measures included closing all education institutions, banning public gathering including informal markets – gravely affecting refugee livelihoods and increasing income insecurity, sexual and gender-based violence and anxiety, the study has indicated.

“This is because urban refugees depend on the informal market economy and small enterprises such as artisans, tailors, hairdressers, traders in precious metal and diamonds and vendors of food and second-hand clothes. The lockdown directives did not exonerate these small enterprises and has led to income insecurity.”

The study shows there was an increase in sexual and gender-based violence including physical, sexual, emotional and economic violence and its health and psychosocial effects, with researchers indicating that the lockdown challenged the traditional gender roles in terms of men being the main breadwinners for families.

For instance, the closure of markets interrupted the work of male refugees who previously operated as vendors/small scale retailers. Consequently, such a sudden loss of work has resulted in a lack of income to support their children and women under their care. This causes anger and frustration within families which aggravate emotional and physical violence.

Members of Local Defence Unit (LDU) offload relief food during a distribution exercise to civilians affected by the lockdown, as part of measures to prevent the potential spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Kampala, Uganda April 4, 2020.


To build a better picture of Uganda’s food security situation, and to see where additional government action is needed, Food Rights Alliance and Twaweza East Africa conducted a country-wide survey on citizens’ experiences and views on food consumption, farming and livelihoods during the COVID-19 outbreak. Data was collected through 16 rounds of calls to the Sauti za Wananchi panel (a nationally-representative, high-frequency mobile phone panel survey), conducted between 18 May and 4 June, 2020.

The findings indicate that COVID-19 has forced and is forcing families to either reduce the number of meals they eat a day, or to reduce the amount of food they buy or eat. Those unable to meet their family food needs are turning to others for help – first to friends or family, then to the government’s emergency food packages.

Poorest hit hardest

The survey estimated that 85% of the Ugandan population did some work, paid and unpaid, during lockdown. But 10% of the population in urban areas are unlikely to have work to go back to. Forty-one per cent of retail and non-agricultural businesses are no longer operating; 27% are completely suspended; and 26% of the interviewees reported that their income is insufficient to cover their basic daily food needs.

Women’s experiences during lockdown

Most women are in informal work and have suffered disproportionately from the closure of markets and the ban on public and private transport. As a result, the survey reports that women’s dependence on others has increased, and household food security has decreased.

For example, Dr. Maxime Houinato, the head of UN-Women in Uganda tells UgStandard via WhatsApp that the “COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis that risks exacerbating gender inequalities as well as violence against women.

“COVID-19 is not just a health issue. It is a profound shock to our societies and it could aggravate gender issues, Houinato said.

Ms. Grace Atiang, a vendor in Kampala says the closure of informal trade without a doubt contributed to some of her colleagues to taking up survival sex to support their families.

The study says the practice could have exposed them to HIV/AIDS, STDs, unwanted pregnancies especially in the context that access to reproductive health services was constrained due to the reduction in services provided caused by lockdown measures and banning of public transport that would have allowed them to access such services.

Minister for Disaster Preparedness and Refugee, Hilary Onek, told UgStandard by phone that government is committed to ensuring food and nutrition security for all people in Uganda including those in urban areas.

“We now know reliably, who the most food insecure people are, where they are and what we can do to save their lives and preserve livelihoods. Such knowledge is very critical now before we take any other decisions,” Mr. Onek said.

Over 8 million Ugandans (19.7%) live below the national poverty line. However, the government’s Covid-19 relief programmes, like food and other relief aid, was directed primarily at the 1.5 million people living in urban areas in the Kampala and Wakiso districts, rather than those in rural areas.

Similarly, the government’s response measures are focused on the formal sector, meaning that they will not reach the poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

These people tend to work in the informal sector and are unable to access government measures like loans and tax benefits. This is likely to cause further inequality between rural and urban populations, and exacerbate poverty and vulnerability.

Urban and formal sector learning measures need to be applied in a way that is clear and inclusive with a short-, medium- and long-term plan for mitigation, recovery and resilience building. This is the only way to ensure that the damaging impacts of the severe lockdown and other Covid-19 response measures on the economy, people’s livelihoods and welfare addressed equitably.

A clear government response strategy is needed, to ensure adequate attention and protection for the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the population. This will protect against the negative impact of the pandemic on the health and livelihoods of the most vulnerable.

Researchers, recommended that contingency planning for Uganda must involve refugees with no risk of financial or legal consequences for them but also humanitarian workers be allowed protected access to the most vulnerable refugees.

The others recommendations requires government authorities such as the Kampala Capital City Authority and other municipalities hosting urban refugees work together with humanitarian organisations such as UNHCR, IOM and UNICEF to ensure continued availability and access to WASH services.

This article was made possible with support from American Embassy in Uganda and the Ultimate Multimedia Consult (U) Ltd (UMC), a multimedia journalism and communications organisation that offers value added news, information and knowledge products, services and training. 

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