COVID-19: Panic buying, added work from home, trusting God

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Sarah Lagot Odwong, UCU graduate and USAID employee
Sarah Lagot Odwong, UCU graduate and USAID employee

By Sarah Lagot Odwong

March 21st, 2020. 11:32 p.m. Uganda had its first identified case of COVID-19.

My mind buzzed with a thousand thoughts. Only weeks earlier, my siblings and I – with our own bills to pay – had emptied our savings to complete a large part of the construction work for my mother’s house. Because her life had been wrought with difficulty, it was always our dream to give her a place of rest.

There is no good time to be dirt poor, but having a bank account blinking red when a government shutdown is inevitable is the worst of times. Sleep eluded me.

I arose early on March 22. On my way to work, I noticed the unusual flurry of activity on the Kampala roads. The traffic was horrendous. Pedestrians trudged in silence on the pavements with swift gaits and downcast faces. The boda-bodas (motorcyclists) rode dangerously, swerving and wedging through the small crevices within the disorganized flow of traffic. It was a dystopian sight. I got into work in a pensive mood. I did not have much time to settle at my desk as a staff meeting was hurriedly called.

We sat hunched on white rickety plastic chairs in the parking yard. The chairs were spaced out from each other. Some staff wore masks. Others nervously tinkered with their phones.

Our boss announced, in part:

“As you all know, the first positive case of COVID-19 was confirmed last night. The grapevine alleges that the country will be in some sort of lock down. It will probably be announced later tonight when the President makes his address. I suggest that we share work plans with line managers and get all the resources we need to work from home…You will have your salaries in your bank accounts by this afternoon…”

At least some positive news. I got a notification from my bank at 1 p.m. that my account had been credited.

I picked up my bag, scampered to the car and drove to the nearest supermarket. I passed by the bank ATM at the premises, withdrew some cash and sauntered into the store. Inside, the panic buying had already ensued. There was a mad dash by shoppers. The queues stretched for miles. Shoppers’ trolleys were loaded with toilet paper, kitchen towels, soap, wipes and other hygiene products. Others heaped vegetables, milk, bread, cartons of beer, meat and liquor.

Only one big bag of rice remained. I grabbed it. I proceeded to pick up other dry rations, hygiene products and joined the snaking lines to pay prices that had increased tremendously in a matter of hours. Little bottles of sanitizer that were affordable a week earlier now cost almost ten times more. I bought just one.

Like anticipated, President Yoweri Museveni announced a lockdown of the country for an initial 14 days. After the two weeks lapsed, 21 additional days were added.

While fortunate to still have a job, my workload increased with hours extending from early morning to late at night. Not only do I have a full-time job, I also support the crisis communications for the epidemic response.

Before the outbreak, I was living out of suitcases, on the road for days and sometimes weeks at a time, working long hours. Now at home, my workload has ramped up even more. I jealously read texts in-group chats from my girlfriends who suddenly find themselves with bursts of free time. They are learning new languages on Duo Lingo, learning to sew and evidently having an extended holiday off work.

Not me. I spend my days hunched at a desk in the living room with my pajamas on and my hair tied in a headscarf. I am writing, attending endless Zoom and Skype meetings, and tending to incessant phone calls.

What I have found hardest is the physical distance and inability to see family – both in Uganda and elsewhere. No travel on roads or in the air. We created a family chat group on WhatsApp, which helps my coping. Seeing videos of my nieces and nephews doing hilarious things, the new baby attempting to walk and other family milestones, I am reminded that there is hope after this plague blows over. And it will.

What precious time I have away from my computer, I am reminded to prioritize the things that really matter. Family, faith, friendships, love and personal development.  We waste time chasing the wind, like the writer of Ecclesiastes opines. The “busy” job, the career growth, and monetary gain. All of it is meaningless.

What this pandemic has shown is that when it is stripped down, life makes meaning with just the simple things. Healthy thriving relationships with God, family, friends and the people who love and support you. They will always be a constant. All the other material contraptions we chase fade away. This epiphany has made me change gear.

In what I hope are the final days of this lockdown, I have a different attitude and mindset. Going forth, I aim to structure my work to fit within regular hours. I aim to find more time to check on the people I love.

I am determined to create extra time to pursue my passion projects. I wrote a book during my undergraduate studies that I need to publish this year. I have autobiography projects that I must complete. I have a consulting business to grow. I have a PhD proposal to write. There are friends and family to check on. I have series of sermons to watch.

I have seen the Lord’s handiwork amidst this chaos. He has been faithful. There is no day I have slept hungry. I have a roof over my head. My utility bills are paid. I still have a job. When I feel overwhelmed, I remember that the creator of the universe knew me before I was formed in my mother’s womb. He had the foresight that I would go through this calamity. And he promised to help me weather it.

(Sarah Lagot Odwong is a graduate of Mass Communication from Uganda Christian University and received her Master’s degree in Humanitarianism and Conflict Response from The University of Manchester, England. She currently works for USAID’s Better Outcomes for Children and Youth Activity as the Communications Director.)


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