COVID-19: What $40 a night in quarantine teaches you

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Alex Taremwa doing an on-line class via Zoom.

(During this unprecedented time of the COVID-19 pandemic, UCU Partners will be publishing stories about how UCU-connected Ugandans and Americans are coping.  This is the first of several accounts.)

By Alex Taremwa

In my shared apartment, Guma Jeremiah storms in from work. I call him the “diplomat extraordinaire” because he works for the Ugandan Foreign Service based in Nairobi. Panting is not Guma’s usual demeanour, and I can sense the haste and unease in this voice – evidently, he is scared.

“Have you watched the news yet?” he asks.

I send my hand for the remote and switch to NTV Kenya. The authorities are confirming what we feared the most – Kenya’s first Corona Virus Disease (COVID)-19 case – a 27-year-old female who had travelled in on March 5 from Chicago in the United States with a connect flight that went through London in the United Kingdom.  Both the USA and the UK were flagged high risk by my country, Uganda.

What followed was silence, then a unanimous decision that shopping essential supplies was paramount. The supermarket in our affluent neighbourhood of Kileleshwa, Kasuku Centre, is often less congested but this particular afternoon, it was as if people went out at the same time to shop. The place was filled to the brim – forcing some prices to shoot up.

At the counter was a Chinese man whose tray was mostly occupied by bathroom tissue paper – enough to cover him for two months or more. I can’t tell if it was the four-metre (up to 13 feet) social distancing recommendation by the World Health Organisation (WHO) or his nationality that is associated with the genesis of the novel Coronavirus, but other panic shoppers gave him more than the deserved distance accompanied with a rare stare. I shopped for beef, bread, soap and groceries. Philip, my other housemate, sent for some alcohol.

“If I have to die, I don’t want to meet God sober,” he joked. He is terrified by face-to-face interactions.

Kenya’s announcement on March 13, 2020, was a wakeup call for Uganda. The virus that supposedly didn’t affected “blacks” or “Africans” as previously assumed had touched base in the region. When I first posted the update on my social media, the first responses I received were asking if the victim was White or Black. Around the East African region, Rwanda, the DR Congo and South Sudan announced cases. Uganda, in the middle, was now sandwiched with cases in all directions.

The next move for President Yoweri Museveni was simple, at least according to the opinion of most Ugandans I interacted with: Close the borders and stop all flights. They didn’t care that out of those borders were other Ugandans like myself – students, expats, parents – who wanted to return to their families. It looked imminent that the President, being the populist that he is, would heed to this pressure. He didn’t.

Instead, the president announced mandatory quarantine for all returning citizens – especially those from “Category One” countries that had more than 1,000 cases confirmed. This was my window to come home. Folks on the “Ugandans in Nairobi” WhatsApp group that I created agreed that if we waited, we would be locked out.

And so, I packed ready for quarantine – normally a 14-day absence from the physical scene but present on social media. Living in Uganda though, where we pay tax for being on social media, it is possible to be absent on both scenes.

The journey home
At Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), I met a one Alex Kawalya. He had spent the night at the airport because he had run out of money to hop onto the next flight. He had just sold his phone to one of the airport staff to get a seat aboard Kenya Airways to Uganda where he wished for a miracle if he was to afford the $100 price per night in Entebbe Central Inn Hotel where government was quarantining returning citizens for 14 days.

Stories of returning Ugandans being herded like sheep by the army to the hotel were sickening. Women and children slept in lobbies and the government would have nothing of the “I am a student on scholarship in Kenya and I can’t afford $100 a night” talk.  Like Kawalya, I boarded KQ 412 at 11 a,m., not knowing what fate awaited me at Entebbe International Airport – but I boarded anyway.

It was the only one of the few flights heading to Kampala and from the look of things, one of the last ones as Jambo Jet, Fly Sax, and even Uganda Airlines were no longer plying the EBB-NAI route – a real catch 22 situation. You’re not wanted at home, but you cannot stay where you are.

Uganda confirmed her first case on Saturday, March 21, after I had been in the country for a few hours.  The victim, looking feverish, was a Ugandan coming from Dubai and had flown in at 2 a.m. aboard Ethiopian Airlines. Having just flown in and in the process had interacted with another Dubai returnee, the pressure mounted. Even when I wasn’t put in institutional quarantine, I felt sickish. I volunteered Kawalya’s name to the Ministry of Health for testing and he did well.

Life in Quarantine
On March 26 and from my self-quarantine hole at Kisubi Forest Cottages in Entebbe, where I am writing this, Uganda has 14 COVID-19 cases. President Museveni closed the airport and borders soon after and has since closed public transport, churches, markets (except for food stuffs). And as of today (March 26), all the 104 tested samples of suspected cases had turned up negative. From this hole, I keep my family updated about my health at all times. Occasionally, I go out, watch the stars and feed the mosquitoes – they are really hungry.

I have to cough up $40 a night to keep my family and country safe but with the stories of people bribing their way out of quarantine, others not staying home as required and thousands who have to be forced to wash their hands with soap – I am not sure if my sacrifice will make any difference.

One of the new cases is a father who travelled from Kisumi, Kenya, by bus and ended up infecting his 8-month-old baby. My conscience tells me that feeding mosquitoes is much safer that infecting innocent people. When I finally get out of this place on April 3, these mosquitoes will surely miss me.

Alex Taremwa is a graduate of Uganda Christian University, a journalist and Masters Fellow at the Graduate School of Media and Communications, Aga Khan University. 


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